Friday, January 18, 2019

Top 10 Movies of 2018

Of all the lists I put out this week, this one is probably the one I'm most qualified for. I watched 56 movies in 2018, a very large chunk of which were new. I reviewed each of them the same day (more or less), so if you want my initial thoughts on some of these movies you can check out my letterboxd account. Most of these reviews are adaptations of those initial thoughts; some completely revamped, some only lightly edited. I hope you enjoy.

#10 House of Deadly Secrets

This isn't a particularly good movie, I guess. Hi, literally two sentences from now spoils the whole thing. This may or may not be true of any of the reviews from here on.

More importantly, the way it wraps up is... there's something. Sylvia, the neighbor who is actually the mother of the girl who went missing in the house in the 1970s, is trying to conjure her daughter. It turns out she accidentally killed Cindy with cough syrup and (unidentified?) pills, buried her in the rose garden, and then made up the story of her being abducted. This all comes out just after she holds Maggie (the house flipper who moved in and is the protagonist)'s daughter Ava hostage, trying to turn her into Cindy. It comes to a head with Maggie digging up Cindy's remains and Sylvia/Veronica confessing, saying that she made up the story and hid the body because her husband would have accused her of killing their daughter and hurt her.

We learned earlier that she ended up killing her husband, and that she claimed self defense. This information is presented in a way to make it seem like she was full of shit; that she just wanted to kill him. Which makes sense in a horror movie. But this isn't a horror movie, really. It can't decide if she's an avatar of evil or the subject of a true crime novel. That inability to decide is annoying but also, maybe, productive.

Because the results of that confession are twofold. For Sylvia/Veronica, it ends in forgiveness. Her daughter appears to her and says that she accepts the apology. For Maggie, it serves to reconstitute the family. We learn a bit into the movie that she's split from her husband, Zeke, because he stole money from her to make an investment that broke bad. He is also there at the confession, and has been helping out. The movie ends - just before a very weird, unnecessary stinger that reveals that this movie still has no idea if it's a horror film - with the couple reconstituted, their daughter looking on happily.

If I were going to pick out one neat thing, it's the way that this movie revolves around three generations of women. Patty McCormack's bizarre, sometimes very interesting performance of a woman who became a mother in the 70s; Angie Patterson's Maggie, and her daughter, Violet Hicks' Ava. The regular intercutting of Sylvia/Veronica's time with her own daughter complicates that as well, giving Addison Aguilera's Cindy screen time to be a missing branch of that tree as well. Basically nothing happens outside of the context of the families, either; there are a few brief shots at school and one sequence in a police office, but that's it.

I'm saying all this to try to wrap my head around what I think is interesting about the ending, but I'm still not sure I've quite got there yet. The way this movie wraps up almost seems like an argument that the nuclear family is constituted through trauma.

The division between Zeke and Maggie is papered over by the actions of a woman traumatized by her "failure" at motherhood, compounded by her fear of patriarchal reprisal/violence. And the families that it is concerned with are almost exclusively made of women, with men as potential violence at worst and incompetent grifters at best. But even with that, it can't imagine them as unnecessary.

There is, in other words, a politics to this bad movie about a grandma abducting a girl because she killed her kid forty years ago. And it's a complicated one, that centers women and gives them complexity. I think that's why this movie stuck with me, and I think it's why it makes it on this list over things like First Reformed, Upgrade, and other films that I found more well made. This fucking thing.

#9 Breaking In

There's an incredible movie in here. It does away with the three stooges' bullshit. It allows itself to linger on the promise of the movie's best moments, whether that's the brief People Under the Stairs moment when the daughter takes to the crawl space, the situation between Gabrielle Union and the first villain in the woods, or even just the promise of a horror movie that isn't constitutionally allergic to the very idea of cell phones. In this top ten I may or may not be grinding some axes. Sorry. The idea that horror movies are ruined by cell phones is super lame and everyone who thinks that is true should feel bad.

That movie isn't the one called Breaking In, which is also embarrassingly PG-13 in too many ways that doesn't mean it is too chaste to threaten sexual assault because Stakes, I Guess. Fuck those three dudes have a disastrous effect on the movie that I saw in this that never really existed.

What does exist is only bad, mostly, in relation to what it could have been. Union gives a largely very good performance, despite being given some truly cringeworthy lines, as do the two children (even if the boy is basically rendered a non-character like a third of the way through). And the camera is so desperate to fill in any potential gaps that even briefly-experienced characters - like the real estate agent, who gives a solid performance - on their own are undercut by the insistence on cutaways that are actively insulting at best.

Some of those moments, though. Union through the glass, making clear the extent to which she's willing to go; or her taking action on the roof. Or the generator lighting. The opening drive to the property, even, which is the only time the film is willing to linger on shots. It's a natural beauty that frames the action without actually serving as a frame, ultimately. But there is stuff here. If only it had more confidence in its audience, and a more genuine desire to stitch together something particular.

#8 Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is the movie I wish Okja had been. The surreal elements are genuinely BuƱuelian, and work incredibly. The message is unapologetically communist. The twist - if you're still worried about spoilers, worry about them - of Cash turning into an equisapien and getting an affinity group together to perform a direct action on Steve Lift's home was so good it justified the boring half hour or so leading up to it. It wraps up economic, racial, and ecological exploitation into a specifically visual, narrative experience in really excellent ways.

It's at number eight on this list, though. Which is weird. Which means: it was better than like, fifty other movies I saw this year. That's something that shouldn't be forgotten. Unlike my TV shows or (to a lesser extent) albums lists this year, I think I'm genuinely qualified to be writing this list. I saw a lot of shit. And unlike the number ten spot on this list, it isn't here because it chewed away at my brain for months despite me not liking it, and thinking that I should maybe put Jurassic World 2: Fallen Kingdom's weird anthology or Upgrade's excellent cyberpunk or Tau or First Reformed or Annihilation's excellent central performances or Kodachrome or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Hereditary or You Were Never Really Here there because all of those were better in certain ways (I have impressions of all these up on my letterboxd if you want quick responses). Sorry to Bother You is good as fuck, is what I'm saying.

I'm also saying it's this low for reasons that continue to elude me. All those things I said in the first paragraph are true, and are things I like a whole bunch. I enjoyed seeing the movie. I've especially enjoyed Boots Riley becoming a figure that film critics have to contend with. But outside of that, it didn't stick with me. Maybe on a rewatch I'll change my mind entirely. Maybe not. As it stands, it feels off. This placement and my feelings toward the movie in general.

#7 Hotel Artemis

This is a movie about a Boomer woman escaping the traumatic house built for her by a Boomer man for his benefit. She does so in order to become a street medic during a protest against water privatization in near future Los Angeles. It fucking rules.

Foster plays the owner of the Hotel Artemis, a safe haven and hospital for the lumpenbourgeoisie, on the night of the riots. Her performance does such a good job of identifying her coping mechanisms. Jeff Goldblum's brief appearance as the Wolf King of LA, "a hippy who gave up his beads for bullets" (according to Foster's character) and the aforementioned Boomer dad, is also pretty excellent at conveying the way a generation infused with capital has treated its children. And their non-capitalist cohort, as well.

That central tension is served so well by the other patients; Sofia Boutella's Nice genuinely kicks ass in her final sequence, Bautista continues to show depth without undermining his bruiser look; Sterling K. Brown's Waikiki is run a little ragged with motivations but goddamn if he doesn't have the charisma to pull it off.

It's also just a good house movie with some super solid action sequences. Hidden doorways and house rules and a porous inside/outside line.

I don't think there's really a whole lot to say about it, otherwise. It's a great use of cyberpunk without dissolving into neon and smoke in the rain. You might have to let the plot tensions work on you and melt away simultaneously to enjoy it. But dang does it kinda rule.

#6 Traffik

The script for this film is clunky in a way that is belied by the incredible chemistry between the main couple. It is bizarre seeing two people who clearly work together incredibly well deliver stilted lines meant only to reinforce a dead obvious theme or concern or piece of information only meant to drive the plot forward. There's also a failure to take advantage of some brilliant setpieces; the version of this movie that pauses at the house and becomes You're Next but with differently-fucked family dynamics and a sense of broader structural oppression might be my favorite movie of all time.

What we actually get is a largely very good movie with some deep flaws, enough of which hit me closely in a way that didn't let me cruise past. The smaller (what a strange word here) is the premise, detailed in the title: this is a movie about human trafficking, a real problem that is almost exclusively used (in my experience) in media to further criminalize sex work no matter how the worker came to that form of labor. I only say smaller here because I think that fundamentally affects the way the story moves without actively being a problem in and of itself.

The larger (again, a strange way of phrasing this) issue comes at the end: this movie does a pretty great job at making it clear that the cops can't be trusted and that the issues it is grappling with are systemic, right up until it abandons that. The resolution is that the FBI are the real cops, basically; or rather that they are the cops of our ideological projection rather than the corrupted locals. It's such a pat repetition of the Comey bullshit it feels like it couldn't possibly not be intentional. It also feels like the ending of Get Out but if the friend hadn't been in the car, and nothing else was changed. It's a gratifying fantasy, I suppose, but one that deeply betrays Traffik's radical potential and, honestly, does so throughout the film in a way that holds it back at crucial moments.

The thing about it, though, is that it does have all that radical potential. It's not a movie that's a joy to watch, or one that I think hits at core tensions in smart or unique ways. What it is, though, is something worth wrestling with. If that central chemistry doesn't work for you, I imagine it would be a mess, but I think it's incredibly strong. And that was enough for me to care enough to poke and think about what Traffik did, in a way that weirdly stuck with me for most of the year.

#5 The Rider

The Rider is basically a neorealist film about a rodeo rider who gets in a serious accident and can no longer ride. It's one of those movies that people who like looking at landscapes in motion will talk about endlessly. I can be one of those people. It's so pretty.

There's a moment that sticks out: most of the movie follows Brady Blackburn as he recovers from the injury and fails to stop riding. He's rarely alone, but the companionship isn't entirely obvious. Then there's the campfire sequence. His friends sit around, trading stories. It turns into a pretty incredible moment of explanation for the way care work gets done in masculine circles.

There are others, too. That one shot with the plateau in the background is goofy. That sequence toward the end with Lane is kind of incredible.

It won't appear elsewhere, but I think the complicated relationship I had with Thoroughbreds helped me love this movie. Because I really want to see that one again in a couple years, and see if my gut feeling - that it is an incredible thing, despite the way it nuts over Kubrick and refuses to let the central relationship develop - is true. But it also put horses in the front of my mind, and seeing another movie with horses that does keep those relationships real and complicated was really nice.

It's a tiny bit annoying that what amounts to a biopic is one of the best movies I've seen this year, but it's the case I guess.

#4 The First Purge

The First Purge was absolutely my favorite theatre-going experience of 2018, and I did a lot of that (RIP moviepass; who would have guessed that if going to the theater was actually affordable people would actually do it?). I also saw it ages ago and haven't been able to return to it, so this isn't going to be the most well-considered review.

I liked the original Purge a ton, and hadn't seen any of the sequels. The First Purge brought me in for fairly obvious reasons; the marketing around it seemed to foreground the racial elements that the first one handled muddily, and seemed poised to do so in a smart way. I think that bore out. It also looked to be explicitly about class war, and it was frankly delightful to see a movie about lumpenprole revolutionaries of color that was, if not explicitly about that, more or less exclusively about it.

The thing that made this movie work - other than moments like the corridor fight scene and the explicit links between the state and white supremacist movements - was the way it telescoped in and out of characters, making no one have to be emblematic of everything. People were allowed to be complex, to contain multitudes, and to do so without the whole movie being some boring character study. The ideas this movie wanted to hit on were allowed to breath without sacrificing any of the action.

It's just all around a really phenomenal thing.

#3 The Miseducation of Cameron Post

There were a lot of nice, well-framed shots throughout this movie about a group of teens being emotionally abused by shitty adults - the moment where John Gallagher Jr's Pastor Rick breaks down being exemplary. It wouldn't be at all the same thing if this had the stakes of a horror film, but the fact that it was shot like one went a long way for me.

I have two ideas as to why this movie lingered with me so powerfully throughout the year. That previous paragraph is the first one; the composition was just strong. In terms of pure visual enjoyment and in terms of a varied aesthetic palette. That aspect was super surprising. The second one is the reason I went to see this thing in the first place.

Chloƫ Grace Moretz gives, for my money, the best performance of the year. I'm no acting critic, but she does a great job of letting the camera linger on her, in a way that is better than Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. And he did great in that! But her reservations with the people around her, her disinterest in being there, the way she barely registers that this is punishment until people take a genuine interest in her; all these things played out entirely in her expressions and body language and they felt fucking real to me.

I don't know that I've ever even considered having a thing on a best of list because of a central performance. I barely think about acting at all. I bet any one of you reading this could make a better case than I could for a different, better job done this year. But it modeled something for me that I needed to see in a person, and it did so among beautiful composition and in circumstances that felt real.

Fuck me, was this my favorite movie this year? No. Okay. No. It's baffling that it got so close, though.

#2 Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras)

Good Manners (aka As Boas Maneiras) is The Brazilian Lesbian Werewolf Movie. It is more than that also, but it is especially that. Specifically, it is The Brazilian Lesbian Movie for the first half, and The Brazilian Werewolf Movie for the second. Because one of the lesbians gives birth to the werewolf, and does not make it out alive. And because the movie shifts so immensely in that moment that it feels like two movies.

This might be the only movie I've ever seen where I had to leave the theater while I was watching it. I stepped outside for about ten minutes. It is not gory, and it is not manipulative. It's just so fucking much. The love story in the first half is so complicated by class; the werewolf story in the second is so fraught by gender and parenthood. Everything about this movie gnawed away at core aspects of me as a person. I really need to rewatch it. Because it might be my favorite thing of this year, but also because I was simply so overwhelmed that I have a hard time articulating anything.

One thing: this movie loves floors. There are such particular angled shots that take in the carpets and the ground. It's a movie that looks down, that averts its cinematic eye temporarily, only to return to the sights. I don't know that I can make an argument about how that works holistically, because the whole overwhelmed me and so eludes me. But I remember that.

#1 Blindspotting

About a third of the way through Blindspotting, there's a dream sequence. Our main character, in the last days of his parole, is in a courtroom. Everyone is rapping or reciting slam poetry. The visuals are stark and uncompromising; probably taking inspiration from The Trial. It is messy and I am willing to bet it doesn't work for a lot of people; I am willing to bet there are innumerable versions of me that it doesn't work for. The version of me who saw it, though, was entranced. Up to that point, I would have scoffed if you told me that this might be my favorite movie of 2018. From that point on, I was rapt.

This movie feels grounded in the right way, which is to say intentionally and purposefully. The slow opening moments provide a space of contrast for the more extravagant bits; Collin's slow gestures toward rapping aren't overwrought character bits but a build towards climax; Val's lowkey acceptance of the signifiers of gentrification when applied to others is a central tension rather than a quirk. This is a movie that feeds into itself with an intensity that allows it to get away with a climax that should be deeply embarrassing. And that is, in some ways. But it still works beautifully.

I'm willing to admit that some of my infatuation came from seeing shots of the neighborhood I've called home, on and off, for over six years at this point. That part probably won't translate. I suspect a lot of things about this movie might not translate, honestly. That's fine. Knowing what a singular experience I had with this movie, I can't do anything but highly recommend it. Not because I think everyone will like it, or because I think it's without flaws. But because it captures so many things so well that maybe someone else might have that singular experience, and I think that's worth it.

Which is more or less my motto, I suppose. I'm not good at recommending things to people. I think a lot of that comes down to how particular the joy I get out of things is, how much of myself I inevitably bring to the table. I wouldn't trade the experience I had with Blindspotting in 2018 for any other movie, even ones I think are better. Which is why it's up here.

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