A still from 'The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part'.
February 7, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Bricked It

2019 / USA, Denmark, Australia / 106 min. / Dir. by Mike Mitchell / Opens in wide release on Feb. 8, 2019

When Warner Animation Group (WAG) announced that it would (to exactly no one’s surprise) return to the glossy plastic well with a sequel to its critical and box-office hit The Lego Movie, it was perhaps inevitable that the result would be less appealing and invigorating than the 2014 original. After all, part of what made the first Lego Movie such a delight was the left-field nature of its aesthetic and comedic success. Five years ago, the very concept seemed like an unintentional satire of Hollywood’s anemic idea factory. A feature-length animated adventure based on a construction toy? Seriously? What might have been a mere 90-minute commercial for the ubiquitous studded bricks turned out to be a visually innovative, relentless cheeky, and genuinely tender pop treatise on the Tao of Play: an appeal for a “middle way” that blends the best aspects of fussy model-building and imaginative chaos. (Of course, corporate synergy being what it is, The Lego Movie was also a 90-minute commercial.)

The 2014 film’s triumph was generally attributed to writer-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; 21 Jump Street), although just as essential was the team at Aussie animation studio Animal Logic – who established the tactile, faux-stop-motion style that instantly distinguished The Lego Movie from the cheapie computer animation of so many direct-to-video Bionicle, Chima, and Ninjago projects. That said, it’s tempting to chalk up the diminishing returns of the 2014 film’s theatrical spinoffs, The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017), to the absence of Miller and Lord’s deft handling, given that the pair stepped back to a producer-only role for those outings.

For the original film’s first full-fledged sequel, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Miller and Lord have returned as co-scripters, although directing duties this time fall to family-animation veteran Mike Mitchell (Shrek Forever After; The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water; Trolls). Mitchell doesn’t have Miller and Lord’s track record in the director’s chair – he also helmed the notoriously risible Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999) – but The Second Part’s failings have less to do with creative shakeups than the lightning-in-a-bottle factor. It would be challenging for any filmmaker to replicate the sense of surprised delight that attended the 2014 film, if only because filmgoers (and Warner executives) have expectations that must be fulfilled. Beyond the sheen of the new, however, The Second Part also lacks the narrative cohesion and propulsion that made the first chapter such breezy fun. For shockingly long stretches, this new Lego Movie is more of an ungainly, plodding jumble than a functional film.

The action picks up almost exactly where the original feature left off, with the Lego city of Bricksburg under attack by the adorable but fearsome Duplo invaders. Guileless plastic everyman Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) attempts to appeal to the Duplo people’s sense of community and compassion, to no avail. Fast-forward through five years of incessant assaults, which have reduced Bricksburg to the despoiled Mad Max-esque wasteland of Apocalypseburg. Everything is decidedly not awesome anymore. (The parallels with the real-world zeitgeist shift from “Yes We Can!” optimism to “This Is Fine” despair are plain but remain studiously un-addressed by the filmmakers.)

Cyber goth Master Builder Lucy a.k.a. Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the rest of Brickburg’s residents have adjusted to this darker, edgier reality, but Emmet remains as fervently upbeat and clueless as ever. Dreaming of an idyllic existence with his maybe-girlfriend, he constructs a cozy dream house that’s almost immediately reduced to blocky rubble by an arriving spaceship. Said craft is piloted by Gen. Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), a glittery intergalactic warrior from the nefarious Systar System, which appears to be some sort of offshoot or evolution of the Duplo people. Mayhem swiftly absconds with Emmett’s pals – Lucy, the brooding Batman (Will Arnett), spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day), sweet-and-spicy Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), and cyborg pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) – prompting Emmett to convert his demolished bungalow into a spacecraft to pursue them.

Mayhem brings Lucy and her friends before Systar’s queen, Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), a colorful, shapeshifting conglomeration of bricks who assures them – somewhat ineffectually – that she has the best of intentions. Batman’s fragile ego prompts him to insist that he is the leader of Apocalypseburg, whereupon the queen reveals her scheme to marry him, thus unifying their worlds. While the rest of the companions are distracted by Systar’s catchy pop music and sparkly amusements, Lucy attempts to uncover Watevra’s almost certainly nefarious aims. Meanwhile, Emmet runs into chiseled action hero Rex Dangervest (Pratt again, imitating Kurt Russell imitating John Wayne), a space-hopping cowboy, archeologist, and velociraptor trainer. Emett is taken with Rex’s rugged man-of-action schtick – and his dark, mysterious backstory – and the pair promptly team up to battle the Systar denizens.

The most conspicuous misstep The Second Part makes is how early (and eagerly) is shows its hand. The first Lego Movie uncovered affecting warmth and a gentler stripe of humor by means of a third-act paradigm shift: The epic battles dramatized by the film’s minifigs were revealed as proxies for the real-world conflict between a persnickety adult Lego collector (Will Farrell) and his rules-busting 8-year-old son, Finn (Jadon Sand). In contrast, The Second Part lets the audience in on its “frame plot” almost immediately, revealing through impressionistic but still thuddingly obvious insert shots that its story is rooted in the increasingly shrill skirmishes between now-13-year-old Finn and his 8-year-old younger sister, Bianca (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). It’s a theoretically fruitful source of pathos – the age- and gender-loaded conflict between siblings is often expressed through possessiveness and territoriality over toys, after all – but The Second Part fumbles the story’s potential by letting the audience in on the secret from the first jump and then harping on it incessantly. There’s little incentive to care about the film’s toy-level plot when the viewer is reminded with almost obnoxious frequency that Watevra’s devious grasping and Emmet’s anxious masculinity are stand-ins for a couple of suburban kids’ squabbles over their objectively enormous and costly Lego collection.

What’s more, The Second Part consistently struggles to construct a sturdy story from its component scenes, most of which play out like the action-adventure equivalent of sketch-comedy routines. In the moment, there’s a diverting and even lively quality to many of these sequences, which tend to be more rooted in character humor and absurdist digressions than in the 2014 original. However, Mitchell, Miller, and Lord are so hellbent on turning every set piece into a self-contained, flop-sweaty joke machine, they neglect the propulsive energy that would have kept the film skipping along. The Second Part makes some concessions to the well-worn conventions of the Hero’s Journey, but it ultimately feels like a half-baked version of a contemporary animated studio feature, with all of the metatextual gags and easy familiarity but no clean lines, narratively speaking. The first Lego Movie adeptly embodied the freewheeling Calvinball chaos of children’s play, but this outing just feels like an adult improv troupe gamely but futilely trying to emulate the same.

There’s still plenty to admire about The Second Part, at least from a technical standpoint, as Animal Logic has impressively refined the style of the first film and its spinoffs over the past five years. The sheer tangibility of the characters and environments is often startling, incorporating as they do unbelievably fine virtual details such as mold lines, scratches, and thumbprints. Although The Second Part necessarily feels like less of a delightful sensory discovery compared to its predecessor, this outing is nonetheless a noticeable iteration of the “Lego Movie house style” into a marvelously shimmery and flamboyant Version 2.0. There’s just enough visual flair to keep animation aficionados smiling while the film plods along through its shapeless plot, jokey cutaways, and Warner Bros.-approved fanfic tomfoolery. While there’s nothing overtly unpleasant about The Second Part – excepting perhaps the uncritical enthusiasm with which it buys into the Lego Group’s own gendered sub-branding – it’s unmistakably a weaker, flimsier, less charming retread of what should have remained a stellar one-off.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Cold War'.
February 5, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Love Is a Battlefield

2018 / Poland, UK, France / 89 min. / Dir. by Paweł Pawlikowski / Opened in select cities Dec. 21, 2018; locally on Jan. 25, 2019

Cold War is a deeply personal film for director Paweł Pawlikowski. The story of a Polish man and woman who couple and uncouple numerous times across many European countries from 1949-64 is inspired by the tumultuous relationship of Pawlikowski’s own mother and father. As with his previous film, Ida, the filmmaker isn’t just concerned with personal identity here, but with how national identity informs the personal. Ida, which won the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, entangled a nation’s complicity in World War II horrors with a young Catholic nun’s discovery of her Jewish identity. With his latest, Pawlikowski’s historical canvas has become even wider, encompassing an era that saw the reconstruction of European nations, a cultural shift into modernism, and the erection of the Berlin Wall.

What is also retained from Ida here is narrative brevity. At a compact 89 minutes, Cold War is Pawlikowski’s miniature of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), a sweeping epic that traces the political forces that tear a nation and a romance asunder. Unlike that classic behemoth, however, Cold War foregrounds the personal, eliding monumental events — such as the building of the Iron Curtain’s physical embodiment, a barrier that separated East from West Berlin and communism from democracy. Instead, such monolithic political manifestations exist only in the spaces between Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), as backdrops to the reunions throughout their 15-year affair, and underly the push-and-pull that eventually leads to their mutual destruction.

That volatile romance begins in 1949 as composer and conductor Wiktor and his cohorts, Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), are mounting a government-backed touring showcase of traditional Polish folk song and dance as an act of national posterity. It’s a pre-television version of American Idol but composed entirely of the countryside proletariat and sans competition — as Poland has recently become a communist nation.

An apparent star does emerge, however, in the form of Zula, as she insinuates her way into dueting with and eventually outshining another potential player in an audition. Her self-identification as an innocent youth born and raised in rural Poland is quickly uncovered as a front when Irena informs Wiktor of the young woman’s true origins and of her arrest for the attempted murder of her father. “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference,” Zula tells Wiktor in their first one-on-one rehearsal, a session in which their mutual attraction becomes apparent as the two trade bars from George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess song “I Loves You, Porgy.”

In using that classic 1935 standard – probably best known from the popular 1958 version by the singular Nina Simone – which is in stark contrast to the folk music filling the first third of the film, Pawlikowski tips his hand that the music in Cold War functions as a narrative and thematic device. Robert Altman pulled a similar trick in his masterpiece Nashville (1975), a revisionist country-and-western musical that builds its songs-as-commentary into the film’s diegesis without being presentational. Here, the traditional songs find updated iterations as modernity creeps its way into the narrative – cultural history being remade and repurposed. “Two Hearts” is first presented within the touring company’s production as an ode to Polish pride before the song’s subtext is later complicated by Wiktor producing and arranging a jazzy nightclub version for Zula. The modern object that was appropriated from the past to symbolize the couple’s undying passion still contains the seed of the nationalism that keeps them apart.

However, as the tempo of Cold War increases, there’s something wonky in the mix. The same elliptical storytelling that Pawlikowski employs to background historical context in favor of the personal is also applied to Zula and Wiktor’s narrative, possibly to the detriment of a fulsome realization of their great love affair. Throughout, title cards announce the advancing years and shifting locations. The first major narrative pivot is a section set in 1952 East Berlin, in which the touring company is now a Stalinist propaganda machine — contrary to the wishes of the quietly anti-Communist Irena, but to the gain of the insidiously brown-nosing Kaczmarek. Zula finds herself squarely in the middle when she chooses to remain in East Berlin even as Wiktor defects to the West, abandoned by the “woman of his life” because of her fear of the unknown. In Paris in 1954, Wiktor is now a lowly piano player in a nightclub when Zula, an increasingly integral part of the touring company as its rising star, visits him on her last night in the city. These dynamics shift continually with each passage as the film eventually lands on a resolution that feels completely unearned from what comes before it – a shrug of an ending that seems born from the worst art-house-film impulses.

Strictly speaking, the spaces between the couple’s clandestine reunions aren’t the problem, but because of those elisions, the reunions are hardly credible as passionate and magnetic eventualities. One could also blame Pawlikowski’s almost Bressonian approach, using pared-down performances in ostentatious tableaus. This strategy lacks the cinematic sensuality necessary to understand the couple’s supposedly palpable connection. One exception is Zula’s drunken nightclub dance to Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” a spark of defiant electricity and one of the few instances of Pawlikowski allowing his camera some freedom of movement. Overall, Cold War is relatively cool to the touch, but its underlying complications of engrained national identity opposing personal passions would be more effective if the film itself were white-hot.

If the mostly clinical approach is precisely the point, then Pawlikowski must be creating a portrait of unwavering and reckless codependency. Kulig’s performance, in particular, supports the idea: The actor refrains from betraying Zula’s motivations – apt for a character who cons her way into prominence – even as she swings wildly from self-survival, to jealousy and fear, and eventually to an alcoholism seemingly produced by the great weight of guilt from her all but sending Wiktor to a prison camp by emasculating him. Kulig (who resembles, oddly enough, both Jennifer Lawrence and Kate McKinnon) imbues Zula with as much magnetism as her director allows, and she becomes particularly alive when contrasted against her handsome but blank sparring partner, Kotz, who mostly just takes her punches.

Through his choices, however, Pawlikowski appears to think that he is indeed manufacturing the next great doomed romance for the ages. He teams again with the Oscar-nominated Ida lenser Lukasz Zal, and the two choose to work with the black-and-white photography and square-ish 1.33:1 Academy ratio of their previous collaboration. The early roll in the grass in which Zula reveals she’s been selectively informing on Wiktor to Kaczmarek is the glance of impressionistic romanticism, a possible nod to Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), and a later scene of their lovemaking contains similar strains of these intentions. It’s gorgeous but empty visual storytelling out of the best of perfume ads, but Cold War is at least consistently striking even when it sometimes amounts to nothing.

Elsewhere, there are indelible images and passages, some of them the likely reasons for Cold War’s ardent admirers, of which there are many. (Zal scored another cinematography Academy Award nomination for Cold War this year, and Pawlikowski scored spots among both the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director nominees.) The film is particularly memorable when the frame allows for considerable headspace to envelop the characters within their oppressive surroundings – something of a directorial trademark for Pawlikowski at this point. During a black-tie affair, Wiktor and Irena occupy the lower third of the frame, standing against an impossibly high mirrored wall that reflects the throng of drunk party-goers in front of the two musicians. They’re confronted by the celebration of communism they’ve helped to reinforce in one of the film’s too-few perfectly rendered visual metaphors of its characters’ hypocrisies and identity crises. Cold War itself may suffer from those same ailments but is nevertheless consistently compelling, even with its blurred vision.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Pledge'.
January 31, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.


2018 / USA / 77 min. / Dir. by Daniel Robbins / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Jan. 11, 2019

For its first half-hour or so, director Daniel Robbins’ Pledge plays like an off-key riff on the conventional cinematic fantasy of fraternity life, in which the Greek system is a gateway to both libertine excess and class-coded prestige. When three misfit undergraduates (Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andrew Botello, and Zack Weiner) stumble onto a mysterious off-campus fraternity during rush week, the scenario is initially a vehicle for shrill cringe comedy and trust-fund lifestyle porn. The film’s bloody cold open, however, reveals that something else is afoot, and as the frat’s hazing rituals quickly become more outré and violent, the film itself gets nastier, stranger, and more unpredictable. Robbins never finds the satirical edge that might have counterbalanced all the mirthless sadism – American Psycho this isn’t – but Pledge at least has the restraint to remain satisfyingly cryptic and volatile, all the way to its cynical final swerve. Ultimately, the feature suggests, it’s not wealth or surnames that define the ruling class, but savagery. C+ [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

The Best Films of 2018
January 28, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Lens Critics Discuss The Year in Film

After publishing their individual “Best Films of 2018” lists in late December, the Lens critics began a spirited discussion via email on the state of cinema in 2018, and on their areas of agreement and disagreement regarding the films what were worthy of praise. Their conversation is reproduced below with minor edits.

Andrew Wyatt: In these sort of Best Of features, I usually attempt to pore over the year's cinematic highlights and tease out a unifying theme (or themes) that in some way explains or summarizes what we saw on our screens this year. In 2017, I perceived a strong pessimism coupled with a taste for boundary-pushing with respect to social, genre, and moral constraints. Looking over the best films of 2018, I'm not sure there's an overarching theme, or at least one that immediately jumps out at me. Comparing our Top 20 lists, the only point where all three of us intersect is Shirkers and The Favourite, which is an intriguing pairing: both unabashedly female-centered features, both shot through with a certain cynicism, but otherwise fairly dissimilar.

Let me pass it to you guys and see if you have any thoughts on the year as a whole? Is there an emergent "macro-story" being told in this year's films?

Joshua Ray: I'm sometimes wary of attempting to cohere films of disparate origin around an overarching theme. It's difficult to say that whether any given year’s great films were in production at remotely the same time, or were even looking to capture "the moment." With this year specifically, we're looking at a crop of films from artists as varied as veterans like Claire Denis and Paul Schrader and newbies like Sandi Tan and Ari Aster.  I think that looking at their four works – Let the Sunshine In, First Reformed, Shirkers, and Hereditary, respectively – you can definitely say that's not the case. (I'm sure we'll get into it at some point, but one of those films, in particular, is so indebted to being about How We Live Now, that I find it to be an obvious BuzzFeed list of "Top Problems with the World in 2018".) One film on both our lists, Andrew, is The Other Side of the Wind, which was "made" in the 1970s. I think we both struggled about its inclusion on our respective lists but found it impossible not to include it. Although it does have timely ideas about people in the Hollywood machine, it's clearly borne from Orson Welles' contemporaneous relationship with the New Hollywood and European imports of its day.

However, as with your 2017 group, sometimes you just look a set of films and there it is: grand unification. My list is filled with portraits of marginalized people trapped on hamster wheels of systemic purgatory. The two that don't necessarily fit that – Zama and Wind – are about what's usually the problem: men and power. I'm not sure if telling marginalized peoples' stories is of particular importance right now due to the rise of nationalism across the globe, or that I'm just keener on these narratives because of the current political climate. Looking over my lists from the past three years, it's clear that this is the year our art started reckoning with the sociopolitical shitshow that's been 2016 and on.

The Favourite and Shirkers can certainly fit in this power/powerless dichotomy, and there's certainly an essay there between the two of them about gender politics. But, as you two wrote so beautifully in your lists, Shirkers is really a treasure of personal essay filmmaking. By the end of it, I finally felt what all those people who loved Richard Linklater's Boyhood felt: the thrill of watching a life unfurl condensed into digestible form. Except Tan's film is far more daring and audacious in form and subject, much more concise than Boyhood, and it’s a miracle that we even have it to treasure.

Cait, do you see a similar overarching theme in your list, or is all of this just too subjective to pin down so tidily?

Cait Lore: The short answer, Josh, is that I’m half with you. When I am assembling my year’s end list(s), I tend to check those sort of insights at the door. That is not to suggest that we should outright dismiss “macro-stories”, as Andrew said. On the contrary, a good film critic should have one eye on the film and another on the culture from which it emerges. But Josh gestures towards an important point – often times these sorts of insights are myopic in nature, and glib on the page. I’m wary of throwing around boilerplate terms, to grasp at some sort of truth about the state of film in 2018.

I’m thinking of Siegfried Kracauer right now. His seminal text From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film is one that everyone reads in graduate school. In his book, Kracauer, a sociologist and film critic, investigates early German film history (1815 - 1933) and its “collective spirit”. This is one of the most important works in German film studies, but its thesis is deeply flawed. To keep it brief: Kracauer, putting on his sociologist hat, says that film is a mass medium, made by a mass of people, for a mass to consume; film is a collective consciousness, he tells us. Kracauer, leaning into his film academic background, posits that Weimar-era film not only laid the foundation for but predicted the rise of Nazi Germany.

Whoa! What? Film can’t predict the future! I think we can all agree on this, yes? But let’s also take a moment to remember that his book was published in 1947. World War II ended in 1945. That means just two years later he publishes one of the most important works in film history. The man is, clearly, brilliant, but something about those two hats, sociologist and film critic, led him astray here. I think, perhaps, the biggest error is that he is too close to the history he writes about. You can only see something clearly when you’re outside of it – when the dust settles. I don’t feel like the dust has settled on 2018 yet. And how much can I say, exactly, about just one year in film history that would illuminate much about the state of film today? I don't know... Maybe I'm the one being myopic now.

With all that in mind, I’d like to start talking about Trump’s America and the #MeToo movement. Just kidding! (I bet I eat these words in the conversation to come. These are tempting topics to engage with...) But seriously, if we do want to talk about the year in film, well, I would start with globalization and the digital era. These topics certainly have something to do with both The Favourite and Shirkers – globalization in particular, which the Internet seems to propel forward at a breakneck pace – if we’re still drawing parallels. You know, I’m so tempted to be Kracauer and talk about how we’re in a new era of modernity. But then I’d be commenting from a very close vantage point – not two years after the fact, but mere weeks – and I’m not a hypocrite!

And I don’t mean to be declare, “I’m too cerebral for Top Tens”. That's not at all what I mean here; I just don’t know how to go about talking about the year-in-film when we're still so close on its heels. This is especially true, when many of my favorite directors' 2018 works aren't yet accessible to me. (I'm looking at you, Lee Chang-Dong!)  With that in mind, I'd like to think about my list first as a document of me, an obsessive cinephile in 2018. I learned a lot about myself in writing mine, more so than any year prior – but I'm not going to go too far into that right now. Instead, I'd like to open this question up to the both of you: Would either of you be interested in talking about your experience making your lists? This year, or any other, I mean. When I'm ranking films, I tend to focus first on what are the most culturally important/significant films of that year. Film is, after all, an inherently political thing, from my perspective, because I’m such a fun, happy person to be around. (Ha.) That is to say, I rarely go for the most perfectly perfect film of any given year. So, how about you two: What do you expect of films? What makes a film the Best Film of the Year in your eyes? And, if you feel like it, what do you think is your role as a critic when making these lists, if it's any different than if you were a "normal" filmgoer?

I don’t expect you to answer all these questions, of course. I’m just wanting to poke around in your head, get a sense of your own personal histories with film. Andrew, I’m especially interested in hearing from you on these matters. You’ve been writing these year-end lists for well over a decade, right? That’s far longer than I have. And so I wonder, how have your lists change over time? A lot of critics tell me they’re more cynical now, harder to please. Is that true of you?

AW: I think your skepticism is valuable, Cate. I'd like to think that most modern critics and cultural observers would treat Kracauer's thesis with the same skepticism. (Maybe not, in the present age of from-the-hip criticism and bad hot takes.) I would hope that no one actually thinks that film can predict the future, or that, collectively, the films of 2018 advance some intentional, collaborative macro-story. Given production schedules, the timeline obviously doesn't even work out. And, of course, the calendar year is itself artificial and fairly arbitrary way to divide the development of cinema. But I'm glad you used the term "emerges", because that's the way I think about these kind of broader themes: as emergent phenomena. I wrote an essay this year for the Common Reader about three cult horror films from 1968, and about how they seemed to presage a nascent shift in English-language genre cinema, and in the counter-culture as a whole. You might, at a glance, regard that essay as committing the exact sort of misstep you attribute to Kracauer, but I try to be careful about how I discuss such ideas. Films can "seem" to presage things, or "seem" to tell a larger story, but it's all retroactive hindsight. Perhaps it's folly to even attempt this sort of analysis a few weeks into the New Year, and when so many of us are still catching up on our viewing backlogs. Still, I think there's some sort of value in these exercises, if only to get us talking about and reflecting on the ways that cinema – which encompasses such a strange spectrum of high and low art – is evolving, even as I'm typing this very sentence.

Any critic or writer thinks seriously about Best Of lists (or any list-making exercise, really) has to grapple with what they're trying to achieve with such a list. Even though we assign grades to films here at the Lens – as most critics do – I don't think any of us would frame list-making as a strictly objective, quantitative exercise. Speaking only for myself, there's definitively a navel-gazing aspect to Best Of lists, where I try to assemble a set of rankings that best represents my at-time idiosyncratic personal tastes. However – with the caveat that I'm the guy who put two studio blockbusters in my Top 10 – I also think that there's value in using our platform to highlight films that people might have overlooked or never even heard about. Or, alternatively, to draw attention to the qualities of a given film that readers may not have considered. Sometimes the rankings have less to do with iterative "good, better, best" judgements that more nebulous considerations. A well-curated Top 10 or Top 20 list should be a little piece of art all on its own. Am I really saying that first-time director Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds is slightly, objectively "better” than the final film of Orson Welles? Not really. But I felt like Finley's film was well-reviewed back in March and then kicked into the memory hole, undeservedly so for such a darkly brilliant, diamond-perfect piece of filmmaking. And so my thought process was that it demands a place of honor, so that when someone looks at this list a year or five years from now, they might take a chance on a great film. A writer's personal politics, ethics, and aesthetics also naturally come into consideration when compiling the films that speak to them. Far from being unbiased, I think a great Best Of list strongly embodies and explores the writer's biases.

To circle back to something that Josh raised: I think all of our lists reflect an interest in marginalized voices, but Shirkers in particular is an interesting and dynamic example of this current. Josh, you picked If Beale Street Could Talk as your Best Film of 2018, and I truly admire the feature as well; it's still in my Top 20, after all! And it's a great example of a film that that manages to have its cake and eat it too, being a swooning fairy tale romance and also a brutal depiction of that way that such fairy tales get derailed in the real world for black Americans. Shirkers, however, is ultimately a more intriguing "marginalized voices" film to me, and I think that has something to do with its interrogative qualities as a documentary memoir of sorts. Barry Jenkins took a novel by one of the great American writers of the 20th century and reverentially translated its story and themes to the screen. And the results are gorgeous. But Sandi Tan did something quite different and perhaps bolder, poring over and dissecting and re-assessing her own youthful experiences (and the documentary evidence thereof). The striking social and political aspects of Shirkers – nationality, class, gender, power, and high/low/counter-culture – are all emergent from her own story. There's something fantastically appealing about that to me, the way that the personal is so clearly political and vice-versa in this sad, frustrating story of an odd, Jarmuschean indie film that now exists forever in this kind of half-born state. Perhaps it's just that I watched a lot of documentaries this year as a part of SLIFF, but docs that break the calcified conventions of the form are something I really value right now. And looking at 2018, with the likes of Shirkers, Bisbee '17, The King, and Minding the Gap, is encouraging. Heck, there are acclaimed, unconventional docs – Hale County, This Morning, This Evening; Infinite Football; and Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (which was on your list, Josh) – that haven't even arrived here in St. Louis yet.

JR: Maybe I'm just exclusively into navel-gazing, as I don't think about anything but my experience when assembling these lists. We tend to avoid first person in our reviews here at the Lens, but the personal is always present in our value judgments. At one point, we talked about trying to aggregate our list into a meta-list but decided we're far too small and our three voices so different that the results would be incredibly wild and therefore unrepresentative of any one of us. I'm not really countering what you said, Cait, about cultural import or significance being criteria by which to make these lists, because I, too, swear I'm a really fun person to be around who thinks film is inherently political. I think that means the context in which these films live is also considered in the space between the screen and our own experience. If that weren't the case and we were talking about cultural import exclusively, where does Black Panther – a film I find exhilarating and intellectually engaging while ultimately falling in line with rote Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) mechanics in its details – belong in our discussion of the films of the year? Not one of us mentioned it in our year-end reviews, but by sheer volume, it has to be one of the most thought- and talked-about films of 2018.

As far as how I assemble these things, I do this really boring and completely pragmatic system of just keeping a running ranking of the year's films that are special to me throughout the year. It acts as a kind of diary of films I liked and makes for an easy jumping off point for the Top 10.  I really only made a couple of last-minute adjustments to that list based on recent re-watches; Paddington 2 and Shirkers swapped places, and I'm sure that the next time I revisit Tan's film, they'll flip-flop again. I agree the rankings are somewhat arbitrary – save for one this year, for me – as is the time frame we use to rank them and the one we use to publish them. Maybe we should do an exercise next year to rank 2018 again and see how that shakes out? Regardless of form or timing, as you both point out these lists have always been invaluable to cinephiles for at least two reasons: What films were of great value to people you respect as film writers, and what films are under my radar completely that I must see?

Which brings me to If Beale Street Could Talk versus Shirkers – a battle you posited, Andrew, that I hadn't really expected, but you make an interesting case for it. Shirkers is such a different beast than Beale Street, but I think your comparison points are valid. I can't make claims that either are exactly analogous to my personal experience, but I will say there's no other film in 2018 that Hulk-smashed me into the ground with such great force than Barry Jenkins', which is incredible considering just how delicately wrought the film is. To me, its position as my favorite film of last year is unimpeachable; I've seen it three times now and if getting to know a film is like dating someone, I'm ready to move in with Beale Street. Especially for a film that's so transcendentally moving, that’s a corny way to say that with each passing viewing, depth has revealed itself beyond the film being simply a reverent adaptation of a respected literary work. It is a full-bodied adaptation that understands the purpose of its source material so well that it even exceeds those intentions by leveraging cinema's great empathy-making abilities. That sustained brutality and fairy tale airiness you suggest that makes it successful is certainly a strength, but in every way, Jenkins' filmmaking has become so sophisticated that some see it as reserved or conservative as compared to Moonlight. I think it's a refinement.

What I will say about Shirkers is that in the so-called "Year of Non-Fiction” – an idea I've seen bandied about throughout the year due to the relative commercial success of RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Won't You Be My Neighbor? – it is certainly my favorite doc of 2018. (I haven't been able to see the film in Cait's top spot, Robert Greene's Bisbee '17.) While the three aforementioned doc hits were given fine notices by other critics, they're not representative of the artistic boom in non-fiction filmmaking over the past five or so years like Shirkers is. There just happen to be ten other works that compelled me more or in other ways.

Essentially, I've come back to that, yes, these lists spring from personal experience, which is a notion I find of great value in compiling them for myself and in reading others'. With that, I'll say there are films that have seem to have critical consensus as the best of the year, that I will never be able to see in that way. I'm ambivalent about Roma, Cold War, and Leave No Trace at first pass, but I just don't think I'll ever be able to see First Reformed or You Were Never Really Here the way many others do. (You both included the former in your Top Ten, and while you make great cases, I can't seem to gel your great capsules with my own experience of Schrader's latest.) Do either of you have any "What Are They Thinking" moments from 2018?

CL: I’m trying to think of a way to respond to your “What Are They Thinking” question, Josh. I keep coming back to Love, Simon. That movie makes me cynical, guys.  Who is it for exactly? It’s not for gay teens, I’ll tell you that. The film will, too. Right at the start, Simon addresses the audience: “I’m just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret: nobody knows I’m gay.” He’s just like you – the heterosexual audience. Thank god Love, Simon is here to let heterosexuals know that gay people are just like us.

I often listen to a film podcast, Mark Kermode & Mayos’ BBC radio show, and for weeks people phoned in about Love, Simon, talking about sobbing into their coats by the movie’s end. They all seem to agree that this was the movie they needed at 16 and, well, I can’t discount their experiences. I mean, I probably hate Love, Simon more than is warranted objectively. I’m so angry about that film, however, and about how it falls in line with the film industry of today, that I want to say that, yes, my reaction is fair; It insults me now and it probably would have insulted me at 16. But is it really fair of me to be angry about the culture industry including queer people – a demographic I am a part of, by the way –  on the menu? I’m not sure. But I’m still angry!!

I will say that the 2010s, as I see them, will probably be remembered as a time where so-called radical politics –  identity politics, feminism, whatever they can mine from people’s Tumblr pages – became a for-profit venture. This is what I mean when I refer to the digital age has caused a shift in the marketplace of ideas. Consider that we’ve got not one but two cutesy Ruth Bader Ginsburg films released in 2018, both of which are filled with #GIFfable moments. (Actually, Ocean’s 8 is probably even more of a problem in this regard.) And then there’s all the other bougie left-wing morality plays with which, if you bought a ticket to the movie, you probably already agree. I'm glad words like "feminist" have lost the stigma they once had. But I don’t think it means we’ve won any sort of battle – no way. These films don’t make me feel liberated at all. Their messages – "Pray-away-the-gay camps are bad!"; "White complacency exists!" – are, of course, ones with which I agree. However, these films seem to share a half-baked political commentary that suggests an industry capitalizing on a moment in time. These are movies that seem to signal toward virtuous thinking, but not much else.

The liberation movement, as it appears on our movie screens, seems to hunger for positive portrayals of marginalized lives. But, from my perspective, in the case of films like Love, Simon or The Miseducation of Cameron Post, their messages are woefully out-of-date. Most of these films, to me, are too short-sighted to achieve the liberation they seek. Where are all my “left-wing melancholy” films at?! Maybe I’m just mad. I’m starting to feel like words such as “feminist” or “queer" no longer belong to me. My understanding of that word, my life as an outsider, has become drowned out or redefined, or I don't know, stretched so far that it's not as relatable to me. Maybe I just want every film to be 1978’s Nighthawks. If that’s the case, then I’m throwing a tantrum; I’m wrong. But I’d still say that many of these films – BlacKkKlansman, Cameron Post, etc. – simply don’t work, problematic philosophical/political framework aside.

I’ve also got words about Roma, Andrew! It may be your favorite film of the year, but I can’t say I love Roma. Is it my “What Are They Thinking” film of 2018 film? No, I can’t say that. When you speak on the film’s visual language, Andrew, I’m right there with you. Roma asks us to sit close to the screen, so close that you have to turn your head to see the entire image. Without Cuarón's usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time, the camera movements are a little tighter controlled, more economical; all of which is to the film’s benefit. It’s as if Cuarón’s asks us to slow down and follow his camera’s gaze as it drifts across these panoramic landscapes. Here he taps into a painterly imagination as we’ve never seen him before, but it is also the natural culmination of all his work. So why don’t I love it?

There’s a scene early on, in a restaurant, where Cuarón points his camera at a flickering screen. A muscle-man astonishes a crowd of onlookers by pulling a car across a room, using only his teeth. That man, we later discover, is Professor Zovek, but it might as well be Cuarón if you ask me. That’s my first impression of Roma: Cuarón pulling a car with his teeth for 135 minutes. Is this film really about his maid? I have no idea how to interpret this thing! It’s certainly a monument to human achievement. That achievement is Cuarón and his camera, and all the people in his lens are more like art-objects for him to decorate the space with. In a different movie, I would possibly be fine with this. It’s just Roma insists on being about someone. We’re told that it’s some Proustian “edifice of memory” exercise. But whose memories are they?  The collective consciousness of 1970s Mexico? Are they Cleo’s? Maybe someone’s else? The popular reading, of course, is that Roma is Cuarón conjuring up childhood memories of Cleo. That reading doesn’t work for me; everyone – yes, including the Cuarón stand-in and Cleo herself – seems like an empty vessel, gesturing towards some sort of (idiot-simple) historical allegory for 1970s Mexico. We’re talking about a film that relates a family break-up both to a stillbirth and a failed revolution almost simultaneously. And it’s all so paper-thin in its execution.

If Rainer Werner Fassbinder were building a house with his films, Cuarón is looking to build a museum. I’m okay with that. Really, I am. Maybe I’m missing the point here, but going off my first viewing, Roma feels overdressed and understated.

AW: I'm not quite as cynical as you about Love, Simon, Cate. I saw enough positive responses to the film on Film Twitter to believe that there is a non-trivial contingent of young, queer folks who enjoyed it and appreciated that it is a Thing That Exists. But your comment does raise an issue that's worth considering, since we've been talking about telling marginalized stories. Does it really "count" if the marginalized story in question has been absorbed and transmuted into a middlebrow multiplex film, and denuded of its political and social bite? I'm bearish on Love, Simon mostly because it's a banal, tastefully chaste teen romance that seems to think the hero's sexual identity lends the film a personality. It's bland as hell, and the fact that Simon is a wealthy white kid – one with no real problems other than the closet he's been living in – left a bad taste in my mouth for some reason. There was some mild debate last year about whether Call Me by Your Name was "sufficiently queer" but here's an instructive example of just how bad it can get: Love, Simon has been utterly dehydrated of its queerness. Still, some might contend that bland mainstream films about gay people are a sign that a gay identity is no longer controversial; that fact that queerness has been bloodlessly subsumed into the Hollywood machine is a sign that LGBTQ folks have finally "arrived". (Or, at least, handsome gay white men have arrived.) I'm conflicted about it myself, but it's the kind of issue where I'm inclined to defer to queer critics such as yourself.

The two high-profile gay conversion therapy dramas that came out this year – Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post – are much more in the "Who Is This For?" category for me. I'll allow that there may be group of politically liberal viewers who would endorse those films' broadly tolerant message and are also largely ignorant of what goes on in right-wing fundamentalist Christian circles, but that seems like a very niche audience. (And, personally, I would rather those people just watch a documentary like Jesus Camp or For the Bible Tells Me So.) I'm not sure that there's a point in raging against these kind of bloodless feel-good message pictures, though. They're a thing that's inevitably going to emerge as the small-c conservative wings of Hollywood and indie film-making awaken to the possibilities of niche markets and try to eke out a piece of an increasingly subdivided entertainment pie. But I don't think it's really a zero sum game, or at least not to the extent that the pessimists fear. Boy Erased exists, but so do defiantly weird and unabashedly queer films like one of your favorites from this year, The Wild Boys. The latter might not play at many Middle American arthouse venues, but the ever-burgeoning streaming landscape also means arthouse theatrical space is less important. I watched a lot of good films with same-day VOD releases this year, and not all of them were low-budget horror movies: A Ciambra, Golden Exits, Duck Butter, Revenge, Night Comes On, A Prayer Before Dawn, The Guilty, and one of of Josh's favs, Support the Girls. And that doesn't even include Netflix Originals! Another of Josh's 2018 favorites, Happy as Lazarro – a hypnotically strange film that I'm sure no one had a clue how to market – was on Netflix of all places. Orson Welles' last film was on Netflix! It's a weird time to be a cinephile.

As for Roma, I think this is just one of those "agree to disagree" situations, where we see different things when we look at the same work. In fact, one of the things that seduced me about the film is that its epic quality doesn't feel like a performative, strenuous thing, at least in my eyes. It feels elegant and alive, like the best of Fellini. And the politics, far from being paper-thin, feel sophisticated and even holistic in a rare way. In the light of day, weeks after I first saw it, some of the metaphors do seem a bit on the nose, I'll concede that. However, part of the reason the film is so engaging for me is that those metaphors don't scan as metaphors in the moment: I'm too swept up in the majesty and meanness of this world that Cuarón has conjured/created. It's not really the escapism of a fantasy, however, even though the film has the barest hints of a magical realism to it. It's Truth, if you'll permit the pretension, one that I think zeros in on the way that the political and the personal are often intertwined in the real world in such agonizing, confounding ways. I take Cuarón at his word that the film is, in part, a revisionist celebration-by-proxy of a marginalized woman who was important to him in his youth. However, I also don't care what the artist's stated intentions were in the final analysis, so whether he "succeeded" in that endeavor isn't really important to me.

And for what it's worth, I didn't find Cleo to be a cipher at all; she's the central character of the story after all, and Roma is, in part, a rumination on humanity's tendency to regard ourselves, as individuals, as the center of the universe. With Roma, I've been falling back on comparisons to the paintings of the Northern Renaissance masters, particularly Pieter Bruegel, who created these enormous, busy tableaus that somehow revolved aesthetically and thematically around a single, tiny figure. (Aside: If you haven't yet seen Lech Majewski's breathaking, borderline hallucinatory film about Bruegel, The Mill and the Cross, do so right now.) I think that's comparable to what Cuarón is doing here, giving us a glimpse of the world's enormity and complexity without losing sight of his subject. I've seen some criticism that Cleo's role is underwritten or Yalitza Aparicio's performance is somehow blank and underwhelming, and I just can't agree. Some of that may be plain old racial bias, but – to give my strawman critic the benefit of the doubt – I think some of it is simply that Cleo is a reserved character, partly by nature and partly due to race- and class-related dynamics. (I think we've seen enough upstairs-downstairs dramas over the decades to concede that domestic workers at times practice a "walk softly, watch carefully" way of navigating their world.) If anything, Cleo's reserved qualities make me appreciate Aparicio's performance even more: She's obliged to do a lot just with glances, grimaces, body language, and so forth.

And, yes, you are both monsters for not putting Roma on your lists.

JR: I thought I might have opened a modest can of worms here, but it looks like everyone's willing to concede that we're owning our individual experiences. I had a friend tell me last weekend that he thought If Beale Street Could Talk was "boring." My gut reaction was to say, "You're boring," but I withheld and asked more probing questions since the "boring" tag is itself the probably the most boring reaction anyone could have to any film. It turned out to just be a difference in taste, experience, and perspective. Cait, you nailed my experience with Roma with your take – and people say Wes Anderson makes dioramas as movies. Some critics have compared Cuarón's new film to Fellini – , specifically – but for me, it was missing the music of the Italian master's symphony of light, performance, cutting, and movement. It felt like watching a camera recording the making of a late Fellini film. But, Andrew, you've made me yearn to see it a second time to discover its intricacies you (and just about everyone else who sees it) are so high on.

Love, Simon brings me to things I'm actually angry about. As I'm writing this, the Oscar nominations have been announced, and as many predicted, cultural dumpster fires Green Book, Vice, and Bohemian Rhapsody have scored many nominations including Best Picture nods. It's clear large swaths of people were having a very different time at the movies in 2018 than we did. I don't want to get into the validity of the Oscars as purveyors of Great Cinema, their cultural import, and how they rarely reflect back the culture at large in Academy membership and their eventual awards. However, with the three aforementioned films and their subsequent nods, it seems the industry is keen to pat themselves on the back for their 'white wokeness." I bring Love, Simon into this because all four of these films fit into a system of positive white liberal reinforcement to which Cait eluded: films with a veneer of progressiveness made by old white guys, films that are meant to be inclusive but end up showing their makers' hands as ignorant about others' experience. Bohemian Rhapsody glosses over Freddy Mercury's queerness with the kind of depiction of queer life out of the worst of old Hollywood – cruising never looked so boring! Vice is an unfunny, obvious, and self-congratulatory satire about the Bush administration's puppet master that proposes to be a warning about contemporaneous issues about men and power. (You're years too late and several dollars short, Adam McKay.) And Love, Simon and Green Book both have an issue with perspective, with the latter using a racist's awakening to the plight of the black American's struggles as a depiction of those struggles. I want an honest film about Dr. Don Shirley's (a fine Mahershala Ali, here) journey through Jim Crow South that doesn't root itself in way-past-their-prime racial and cultural stereotypes (Viggo Mortensen folds an entire pizza in half and eats it like a sandwich – did you know his character is Italian?) and ahistoric portrayals of acceptance that work as a backdoor to reward the audience for "how far we've come."

However, as we wrap up our year-end coverage, I don't want to waste words on the bad of 2018 and would like to focus on the good. There are moments, performances, and ideas from 2018 that I'm taking with me into 2019 and beyond. Like Andrew mentioned, I'm grateful for the access streaming services afforded its members to films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Happy as Lazzaro, The Other Side of the Wind, and, yes, Roma, too, and that people still turned up at the movie theater for riskier and/or original fare like A Quiet Place, BlacKkKlansman, and Crazy Rich Asians. On top of that, and to toot our own horn, SLIFF had a banner line-up this year – a great challenge for the crew to make 2019 even better, along with a recent nod from USA Today proclaiming it one of the ten best film fests in the United States. On the other hand, a film almost no one turned out for, Suspiria, had one of the best and surprising laughs of the year with Madame Blanc's (one of three Tilda Swintons) head hanging by a thread – an apt encapsulation of the mood of 2018. To counter that, I'd like to leave on the image of Regina Hall, Shayna "Junglepussy" McHayle, and Haley Lu Richardson yelling from their rooftop to all the girls that, "It's going to be okay!" What are you two choosing to bring with you into 2019?

CL: Josh, you’re right, this year’s Oscars nominations are so disheartening. I’d go on record saying that it’s the worst batch of nominations in recent memory. That being said, every year’s nominations leave me feeling like Peter Bradshaw when reading Richard Brody. Do you remember what he said in 2009 about Brody’s best-of-the-decade list? Bradshaw was so confounded by Brody’s selection that he felt the urge to run home and "sit at the kitchen table with the lights switched off and a bag of frozen peas pressed to my forehead."  Yeah… I know that feeling well, Mr. Bradshaw. All thanks to the Academy, I’m afraid.

What, exactly, am I taking into 2019? You’ve asked another question that’s not easy to answer, Josh. I, unfortunately, don’t know. Perhaps this is my Frozen Bag of Peas year. What concerns me here is that I’m about to hit five years in the movie-critic game, and yet I end 2018 feeling more clueless about the film medium – what it’s for and what I ask of it – than when I started years ago. You’d think that this milestone would grant me some perspective but, no, it hasn’t: I’m too busy sitting in the dark with that bag of peas on my head grumbling to no one about the state of multiplexes today, what I feel they’ve mined from various demographics, desperate for representation. This applies to Netflix too, if I’m being honest, and in more insidious ways. Analytics replacing test audiences, and human intuition is perhaps the biggest hit to the silver screen’s integrity this side of 2000. But as you both point out, Netflix has done us a lot of good – it’s a mixed bag with them, I guess. I should probably stop myself here, or I’ll end up getting on my Stranger Things soapbox. That TV-series showed me what it might feel like to get one of those uninvolved, bizarrely clinical letters from Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her. Yikes.

Changing gears here, if only slightly, I’d like to point out that this past year is, perhaps, the weakest since I started reviewing in 2015. There’s not one film on my Best Of list that I feel the urge to return to right away and, as I said a few moments ago, the Oscar nominations are awful. I’m not entirely sure why this past year left so much to be desired but it might come down to bad luck. A lot of the films I was most excited about didn’t hit St. Louis screens until January 2019. Thanks to the Webster Film Series, I was able to catch two of those films recently: Burning and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Each of which would have earned a top spot in my 2018 list, had I been able to see them in time.

I stand by my praise of Bisbee ‘17, but I think that Burning may be the best film of 2018. This is Lee Chang-dong’s, what, third masterpiece in a row now? As far as I’m concerned, Secret Sunshine is one of the very best films of the previous decade. (If you were to press me to make a Top Ten of last decade, it’d probably come in at the tail end of those rankings, honestly.) Yet here I am now, telling you that Burning is 2018’s greatest film and Lee Chang-dong’s best-to-date. Think Last Year at Marienbad by way of Rebels of the Neon God, and you’re getting close. There’s so many routes one can take to get to the film’s center, but no clear answers. And I think it beats out The Favourite, as far as the performances are concerned. All three young actors are working with the most difficult material; there's no fixed definition of what motivates Burning's lead actors, after all. (If you don’t believe me, then go read some reviews. Each critic seems to define these characters a little differently. There are no answers in Burning, friends.)  It seems that Steven Yeun’s performance is the most roundly praised. My favorite of the three, however, is Ah-in Yoo. No one has moved so slowly and with such a strange swagger since Lee Kang-sheng!

One last thing, before I had things off to Andrew: I can’t have this conversation without stressing my undying belief in the transformative power of cinema, it’s ability to bring us new ways of seeing, ways of being, ways of knowing ourselves. I am of the opinion that no other medium comes close to film, in this particular way at least. And I think the most significant transformations happen in the multiplexes. As much as I love art cinema, those films tend to just speak to me and those who think like me. Do you know what I mean? It can only reach a particular type of filmgoer. I’ve always had wild tastes. My favorite films tend to blur the lines between art cinema and genre films; I think that my Best Of list makes this obvious. But I have yet to see an art film change audiences in as big of a way as Brokeback Mountain did. And where did that one play? Multiplexes. That is to say, if you want to change the world be a pop musician, not a poet; I truly believe that.

AW: At this point, it probably borders on tiresome to grouse about Brokeback Mountain losing Best Picture to Crash in 2005, but I think that evergreen complaint ties together two strands you touch on, Cate: 1) The perennial, somewhat masochistic disillusionment that film critics experience vis-a-vis the Academy Award nominations and winners; and 2) the increasingly fuzzy dichotomy between multiplex and arthouse fare. More trenchant critics than I have pointed out that arthouse films of the late 2010s look a lot like small- to mid-budget "dramas for adults" that were once a staple of multiplexes, the reliable counter-programming to family and genre films. I think that Brokeback, while a modest mainstream success in 2005, is the sort of film that would play exclusively in arthouse venues in 2019. The landscape has changed dramatically in just 10 or 15 years, partly due to the superhero/franchise takeover of the big studios' release schedule, and partly due to other financial and cultural disruptions. By the way, if you guys haven't read Ben Fritz's The Big Picture from last year, I very much recommend it: Using the Sony email hack as a jumping-off point, Wall Street Journal reporter Fritz sketches a concise, cogent picture of the current state of Hollywood, and how exactly we got here. It's a bit inside baseball, but very valuable context for those of us who tend to be focused on the art rather than business side of things.

Our email discussion has dragged on for a few weeks now, but one of the advantages to taking our time to chew over these issues is that it gives us a chance to catch up on films like Burning – and for ongoing developments like the Oscar nominations to send the conversation pinballing off in interesting directions. Again, it's hardly novel that we, a bunch of self-acknowledged snobby film critics, take issue with the Academy nominations. There's nothing more reliable than critics griping about the Academy's pedestrian tastes, except perhaps for the studios and the public griping about critics being out-of-touch elites. I'm admittedly pretty disappointed in the Best Picture nominees myself, although more than anything that's due to the crummy bottom tier – Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, and Vice. I have a hard time attaching a "worst in years" label to any crop that includes Roma and The Favourite. Some of my complaints about the Oscars are of the "What did you expect?" variety. Of course, Shirkers and Spider-Verse didn't score Best Picture noms. Documentaries and animated features are effectively disqualified by virtue of being shunted to their own categories, the odd Beauty and the Beast breakout every decade or so excepted. Of course Hereditary is nowhere to be found, in either the Best Picture or Best Actress categories. Get Out was a rare exception to the Academy's anti-horror bias, not a sea change. Capernaum and Never Look Away in Foreign Language look like glaring misteps when Zama is absent. Where is Eighth Grade or Leave No Trace or You Were Never Really Here? Where is Ethan Hawke? Where is Stephen Yeung?  (Still my fav performance in Burning, with all apologies, Cate. The way Yeung plays his character as an inscrutable hybrid of Jake Gatsby and Patrick Bateman, but completely unshowy, is just stunning to me.)

I also have some more eccentric complaints. (How the hell did Camille Friend's amazing hair designs for Black Panther get overlooked? I'm not one to throw accusations of racial bias around lightly, but... yeah.) All that said, I try to look for the positives every year as well. Yalitza Aparicio in Roma might be unsurprising, but it's enthralling to see an indigenous performer get a lead acting nomination for a foreign-language film. Indeed, Roma and Cold War both received a lot of love outside the Foreign Language gulag, which is heartening. Hale County, Minding the Gap, and Of Fathers and Sons all nabbing Best Documentary nominations is sort of crazy. The two primary Best Score contenders are both from unabashedly black films, and either one would be a well-deserved winner. It seems unlikely, but I would love to see Willlem Dafoe walk away with an Oscar for At Eternity's Gate, partly because he's been overlooked for so long, partly because the role is one that plays to his quintessential strengths, and partly because he really is that good in it.

For what it's worth, I'm slightly less entranced with Burning than you guys, but it would likely have nudged another film or two out of my Top 20 if I had had a chance to see it before we compiled our lists. There weren't any other top-shelf 2018 latecomers that I caught up with in January, although I did sneak in some gratifyingly weird and intriguing features into my tardy viewing, including The Endless, Have a Nice Day, Let the Corpses Tan, and November.

It's easy to be negative about the state of cinema in 2018, I suppose. Of the top 20 box office performers last year, 17 were studio franchise films or some sort or another. (The exceptions? A surprisingly good horror one-shot [A Quiet Place]; a culturally momentous but by-the-numbers romcom [Crazy Rich Asians]; and, er.... Bohemian Rhapsody.) More than ever, originality and risk-taking are anathema to Hollywood. Still, I try to look for the bright spots: The fact that the franchise juggernaut still gave us pop near-masterpieces like M:I - Fallout and Spider-Verse is heartening, and suggests that blockbuster filmmaking's parameters are loose enough to accommodate balls-out ambition and auteurist weirdness. (Let's call it the Mad Max: Fury Road factor...) I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Chloe Zhao is going from The Rider to Marvel's The Eternals. Assuming the franchise dominance at the multiplex doesn't crash and burn in the next couple of years, it may be that shared cinematic universes become a place not just for for Soderbergh-style dues-paying – wherein filmmakers alternate "one for the suits" projects with more idiosyncratic fare – but for auteurs to flex their creativity on the studio dime. As someone snarked on Twitter last year, Disney's commercial and cultural ubiquity allows for the eventual possibility of the $15 million "indie" Stars Wars feature, which means that we might someday get truly offbeat stuff like, say, a Kelly Riechardt film about Obi-Wan Kenobi just wandering around in the desert for a decade, or a Bong Joon-Ho political satire about the travails of inter-galactic garbage-pickers. I'd pay to see that, as they say.

And outside the multiplex, I think there's still plenty of reason to be enthused about film and its power to tell profound, poignant, and groundbreaking stories. New features are coming from the aforementioned Bong Joon-ho, Hirokazu Kore-eda (again!), Claire Denis (again!), Richard Linklater, Roy Andersson, Jennifer Kent, Steven Soderbergh, Abel Ferrera, Xavier Dolan, the Dardennes, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, the Safdies, David Robert Mitchell, Mia Hansen-Løve, Pedro Costa, James Gray, Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, and Harmony Korine. Paul Verhoeven has some sort of nunsploitation madness on the horizon that looks like the lesbian sister to Ken Russel's The Devils.  We're getting a new Martin Scorsese film – on Netflix! Again, as easy as it is to be a pessimist, it remains a fruitful and weird time to be a cinephile. As long as people in different markets and with different levels of means and access have the ability to see innovative films – multiplex, arthouse, festival, rental, streaming, or whatever - I think that the future of cinema is always going to be consistently exciting.

Tags: Year in Review Cait Lore Joshua Ray Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Alphaville'.
January 22, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Best Dystopian Sci-Fi Film You've Never Seen Was Directed by.... Jean-Luc Godard?

1965 / France / 109 min. / Dir. by Jean-Luc Godard / Opened in the U.S. on Oct. 25, 1965

[Photo: Film Forum / Rialto Pictures]

Note: This essay was originally presented at the 2018 Robert Classic French Film Festival on Mar. 16, 2018. It has been slightly revised for this post.

Alphaville is one of those films that seems to slip through the cracks of the cinematic canon, even though 1) it was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the 20th century; and 2) it is a prototypical, faintly radical entry in a now-ubiquitous subgenre, the dystopian science-fiction film. Indeed, this writer only stumbled upon the feature three or four years ago – a tardiness that was, in all honesty, due to ambivalence towards the French director’s filmography. Alphaville is, admittedly, not an “easy” film; it’s morbid, peculiar, and very French. However, once the viewer attunes themselves to the feature’s off-kilter, distinctly Godardian approach to world-building, it’s apparent that Alphaville is something special, a film that feels both uncannily familiar and totally unique.

If one were trying to describe Alphaville to the uninitiated, the obvious nickel summary would be “artsy French science-fiction detective film”. However, while such a description would be technically correct, it is also shamefully reductive. Alphaville is a disorienting place where nuanced characterization and straightforward narrative take a back seat to images, ideas, and mood. In this world, instantly recognizable genre tropes act as signposts to guide the audience. Accordingly, the film’s anti-hero – the Virgil, if you will, for this conceptually and artistically bewildering journey – is an immediately familiar archetype. He is Lemmy Caution, a surly secret agent whose iconic attributes could be sketched on a matchbook: a chain-smoking, tough-as-nails bastard in a trench coat and fedora who keeps his trusty .45 semi-automatic close at hand.

Caution remains a relatively obscure figure in the U.S., but this British-created, American detective character was a fixture in French B-pictures of the 1950s and 60s. Most of these now-forgotten features are film noir tales of broads, booze, and bullets, with titles like This Man Is Dangerous (1953) and Dames Get Along (1954). In that series of films, Caution was portrayed by American actor Eddie Constantine. And here is where Godard sticks a finger in the eye of European filmgoers, by casting the same actor as the same character in a completely different kind of film: a grim story set in an autocratic, automated mega-city of the future. The effect is a bit like plopping James Bond down into Republic of Gilead: an audacious, disorienting, and morbidly fascinating experiment in genre subversion.

To be sure, many of the elements one expects in a pulp literature or classical Hollywood detective story are present and accounted for. There is a gorgeous woman in danger, of course, and a seemingly endless succession of pug-ugly goons who alternately shadow, chase, and rough up the hero. Most of the film takes place at night, but no one in this humming, tungsten-bright city ever seems to sleep. Godard fuses these well-worn mystery fiction components to dystopian futurist elements that would have been much less familiar to a filmgoer in 1965 than they are today. This is Philip Marlowe as seen through the lens of 1984 and Brave New World, with a touch of A Clockwork Orange for good measure. The titular Alphaville is a technocratic city-state under the control of a sinister, dictatorial artificial intelligence, Alpha 60. Science and reason are revered above all other values, while sex and drugs are used to mollify the populace. The dictionaries are constantly being re-written and replaced as words are deemed forbidden by the authorities. Criminals are put to death in surreal public executions, for the unforgiveable crime of expressing emotions.

The dissonance created by this amalgamation of film noir and science fiction is both befuddling and enticing. However, Godard can’t resist scrambling it even further with his personal brand of curious cinematic radicalism. Voiceover from the omniscient Alpha 60 computer often steps on Lemmy’s hard-boiled inner monologue, the AI’s distorted croak commenting menacingly and cryptically on the action. Glowing neon letters and numbers – including Einstein’s formula – appear in insert shots, and Godard plays coy visual games with still photographic images and simple, jarring visual effects. Characters address the camera directly, giving voice to their secret fears or reciting forbidden love poetry. Eventually, in fine Godardian fashion, narrative logic itself appears to break down. Lemmy seems to be going in circles, returning to the same hotel room, accosted by the same thugs, running into the same girl, and interrogated repeatedly by the city’s scientist-engineers and the glowing eye of Alpha 60.

Truth be told, it’s clear why Alphaville is not typically discussed alongside the cinematic landmarks of the French New Wave. Coming from a director who made ground-breaking features like Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963), Alphaville doubtlessly looks like genre slumming to some cinephiles. Moreover, the film has a palpable tone of dazed exhaustion that doesn’t quite square with Godard’s reputation for youthful artistic verve. On the other hand, Alphaville is perhaps too austere and elliptical to ensnare the attention of some sci-fi aficionados, who expect more radical design, more imaginative futurism, and more overt mind-screwing in their cerebral techno-dystopian stories.

Such dismissiveness is wholly misplaced, however. The marvel of Alphaville is that the film’s three primary components – the detective story, the dystopian setting, and the New Wave cinematic style – combine, almost alchemically, into something bracingly original. For fans of film noir, Alphaville offers brutal violence, beautiful women, and an amoral lone-wolf hero. For devotees of dystopian science-fiction, it boasts a malevolent computer overlord, Statsi-style thought control, and evocative, absurdist touches. (Like the bizarre reversal of the “Yes” nod and the “No” head-shake in the gestural lexicon of the future.) And for lovers of the New Wave, it’s all assembled with just enough artistic nerve and confounding formal eccentricity to distinguish it from a more straightforward genre hybrid.

In short, there’s something for every viewer to love, but also something to hate, which makes the underlying balancing act a tricky one. It’s a lasting testament to Godard’s instincts as a filmmaker that he manages, in his usual inimitable way, to pull off this feat with such offhanded nonchalance. He whips this peculiar mélange of cinematic influences and invention into a work that is so stimulating, so darkly stylish, that it draws the viewer in like an irresistible magnetic force.

Rating: B+

Further Viewing: Fahrenheit 451 (1966); Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970); THX 1138 (1971); World on a Wire (1973); Brazil (1985); "A Detective Story" in The Animatrix (2003).

The Criterion Collection’s DVD of Alphaville is currently out-of-print. However, the film can be rented right now on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other digital platforms.

Tags: Andrew Wyatt The Lens Recommends Reviews

A still from 'Glass'.
January 17, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Half Empty

2019 / USA / 129 min. / Dir. by M. Night Shyamalan / Opens in wide release on Jan. 18, 2019

There is no pleasure in reporting that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is the low point in the filmmaker’s three-feature “realistic superheroes” cycle. The first film in this chronologically lopsided trilogy, 2000’s Unbreakable, remains Shyamalan’s best feature to date: a gorgeous, quietly marvelous rendition of superhero archetypes and narrative arcs within a small-bore, grounded context. (Compared to that film, Christopher Nolan’s Batman features look as bloated and outlandish as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.) Pivoting off the renewed success he found with his found-footage Grimm brothers riff The Visit (2015), Shyamalan pulled off an impressive fake-out with Split (2016), revealing at the literal last second that his horror tale about a serial killer with 23 warring personalities was also a stealth sequel to Unbreakable. Two years later, Glass re-unites the previous films’ extraordinary characters – invulnerable strongman David Dunn (Bruce Willis), post-human cannibal Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), and diabolical mastermind Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) – for an ambitious swan song.

The result is a bit of a hot mess, a confounding jumble of euphoria, ingenuity, tedium, kitsch, and inanity that has become something of Shyamalan’s calling card – more so than the twist endings the director was known for once upon on a time. It’s exactly the sort of film that is likely to inspire scathing indictments in most quarters, but also a small, passionate cadre of cult admirers. Perhaps inevitably for the climactic chapter in a nominal superhero series, the filmmaker goes all-in on the pulpy silliness that was Split’s least appealing aspect, and similarly embraces Unbreakable’s cutesy meta-awareness of comic-book logic, to an irritating extent. And yet Glass, for all its stumbles, still illustrates why Shyamalan is an intriguing genre filmmaker: His stories might be replete with supernatural and science-fiction weirdness, but they are always earnest, human-centered stories with an almost quaint belief in the power of hope and connectedness. Occasionally that impulse leads to an unqualified gem (Unbreakable), sometimes to an unsettling vision (The Village, Split), and sometimes to a baffling cinematic train wreck (Lady in the Water, The Happening). Glass is more of a mixed bag: compelling when it’s good, but numbing and absurd when it’s bad.

The film picks up, somewhat unexpectedly, just three weeks after the events of Split: Kevin Crumb, a monstrous but pitiable man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) is still at large and has been subjecting Philadelphia to a reign of terror. He has abducted not one but two additional groups of teenage girls since viewers last saw him, murdering and devouring the first set and presently prepping the second set – four high-school cheerleaders, pleated skirts and all – for the same fate. Or, to be perfectly accurate, the “Horde” has committed these crimes, not Kevin Crumb. As seen in Split, three of Kevin’s personalities (or alters) have joined forces and seized control of his body, all to glorify the hidden 24th alter that has recently emerged: the Beast, a bloodthirsty entity blessed with superhuman strength, agility, and toughness. Disturbingly, the Horde – supercilious Miss Patricia, OCD-afflicted creep Dennis, and guileless 9-year-old Hedwig – has begun to win over other, previously recalcitrant alters to their twisted views. (One of Glass’ more successful and unsettling touches is the queasy spectacle of the alters gradually falling one by one to the zealotry of this doomsday cult that exists entirely in Kevin’s head.)

Fortunately for the good people of Philadelphia, David Dunn is on the case. Now in his 60s, but evidently still as strong and unbreakable as ever, David owns a small home-security business with his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his role from 19 years prior). This endeavor is largely just a front for David’s ongoing superheroics, which apparently involve delivering vigilante beatdowns to any violent criminals he stumbles across in his nocturnal “rounds” of the city. The recent appearance of the Horde has freshly focused David’s attention, and with remote, digital-savvy support from Joseph – who acts something like the Oracle to David’s Batman – he is zeroing in on Kevin’s lair, concealed somewhere in a decaying industrial district.

This is plainly the stuff of a standard hero-vs.-villain comic-book story, filtered – as in Unbreakable and Split – through the lens of a quasi-realistic setting. (All of Shyamalan’s features take place in what might be called “Weird Pennsylvania,” which is not so much a cinematic universe as a shared strain of pulpy uncanniness combined with a native’s detail-oriented affection for the Keystone State.) Glass upends the expectations engendered by this setup relatively quickly, however: Both David and Kevin are captured by the authorities during their first face-to-face confrontation and swiftly committed to a state psychiatric hospital under the care of an outside consultant, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She specializes in the treatment of superhero delusions, and – besides designing the custom cells that control David and Kevin by exploiting their weaknesses – she makes it her mission to cure them of their mental disorders or at least abandon the belief that they possess supernatural abilities.

That same hospital, not incidentally, also houses Elijah Price, the brittle-boned, comics-obsessed terrorist mastermind who “discovered” David by crashing airplanes, burning down hotels, and derailing trains until he found a singular individual who could not be physically harmed. Confined to a wheelchair and semi-catatonic thanks to perpetual sedation, Elijah doesn’t seem like much of a threat anymore, but, of course, there’s always been more to him than meets the eye. What’s less clear is why Dr. Staple has insisted on housing all three of these dangerous individuals in adjacent rooms at the same hospital. Or, for that matter, why her treatment technique involves group-therapy sessions wherein she badgers David and Kevin with mundane explanations for their abilities while Elijah just sits there, drooling.

Some of this makes more sense as the film’s revelations gradually come to light, and some of it doesn’t. As is often the case with Shyamalan’s films, the director at times seems to stage scenes primarily for their visual impact, story and logic be damned. In what is arguably the most successful expression of this compulsion, the therapy sessions take place in an enormous, abandoned ward that has been painted pink from floor to ceiling, with Dr. Staple and her patients seated (for some reason) at the far end of the room and rows of orderlies standing at attention along the walls. It’s utterly preposterous, but also wonderfully, memorably weird in the way that genre films should be. Overall, Glass could use a lot more of this weirdness, as it helps distract from the film’s clunky screenplay, narrative shagginess, and maddening insistence on spelling out every thematic beat, just in case the viewers in the nosebleed seats didn’t catch it.

The foremost problem here is one that previously reared its head in Unbreakable whenever Elijah started monologuing about the mythic resonance of superhero comics. (Yes, yes, the modern successor to Greek myths; it’s no longer a radical thesis.) Or in Split whenever Kevin’s late psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), waxed poetically and pseudo-scientifically about the latent, evolutionary potential of DID-afflicted individuals. Namely, Shyamalan’s screenplay gets less compelling – and, frankly, dumber – when his characters start proclaiming themes or when the subtext becomes text. The occult and sci-fi concepts that undergird his stories can be quite potent when left to simmer, but they just sound ridiculous when flesh-and-blood people start articulating them.

Glass commits this sin over and over, and never more annoyingly than when Elijah actually starts narrating the film’s action with purple comic-book prose. It’s a gesture whose insufferableness lies somewhere between Scream’s smug self-awareness of slasher tropes and a Reddit post listing 19 reasons why the Sonic the Hedgehog games are totally structured according to the Hero’s Journey. This is one reason that the series’ most fascinating cranny is the bizarre inter-alter “society” that resides in Kevin’s brain: Shyamalan’s writing underplays it, never calling attention to how peculiar and mind-boggling it truly is and never visualizing it with special-effects gimmicks.

Glass’ other conspicuous flaw is one of sheer directorial indulgence: There is absolutely no reason this film needed to be 129 minutes long. Unlike some features with unnecessarily swollen running times, this has less to do with superfluous scenes than with scenes dragging on for far too long. Characters repeat themselves, obvious facts are pronounced aloud, and thriller set-pieces grind away while bystanders gawk emphatically in endless reaction shots. Shyamalan rarely manages to capture the sense of wonder and terror that characterized Unbreakable and Split (respectively), and much of that failure is entwined with his unwillingness or inability to tighten the whole damn thing up. Once David and Kevin are locked away under Dr. Staple’s watchful eye, the film loses much of its momentum. Glass struggles to find it again, even as the clock ticks towards a three-day deadline that’s never adequately explained and West Dylan Thordson’s jittery score insists that something is at stake.

These problems drag down what is otherwise a serviceable and at times genuinely startling conclusion to the story that began with Unbreakable. There remains a strong streak of humanism in the feature’s core, even when the director’s undisciplined inclinations are otherwise getting the better of him. Pointedly, each of the nascent superheroes/villains has a corresponding “normal” person who is concerned for their well-being. David has Joseph; Kevin has Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl who escaped the Beast and is convinced she can reach the man’s original, sublimated identity; and Elijah has his elderly mother (Charlayne Woodard), who can’t deny that she still loves her boy, his mass-murdering ways notwithstanding. (Shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin there.) Of course, Shyamalan often doesn’t know what to do with these characters, other than have them show up at the hospital now and then to half-heartedly push back against Dr. Staple’s rationalist theories. Casey spends a curious amount of time paging through superhero comics, as if there were some solution to Kevin’s tribulations hidden somewhere in this esoteric medium that she has just discovered. (Glass is weirdly inconsistent on the matter of comic books themselves: They are either an arcane, niche subculture that is completely unfamiliar to most people or a cynical corporate product that is ubiquitous in our late-stage capitalist reality.)

For much of the film, Elijah is more of a prop than a character. He simply stares out at the world blankly through a pharmaceutical haze, his head lolling to the side. (Thereby imparting a Dutch tilt to his point-of-view shots; a touch that harmonizes with Unbreakable’s assertion that comic villains see the world through a slightly skewed perspective.) It’s a strange way to treat the film’s titular character, but that title is, of course, the tell that Mr. Glass is not to be underestimated. Elijah is Up to Something, although the full extent of his scheme is not apparent until several plot swerves have revealed themselves. One of those twists – a hackneyed attempt to retroactively connect the events of the preceding two films – invites eye-rolling. What's more, Shyamalan succumbs to a disheartening world-building impulse late in the third act, tacking on the sort of ridiculous shadow history that’s a better fit for the John Wick films. There are, however, some authentic narrative surprises, most of them involving the filmmaker’s gratifyingly subversive fondness for setting up expectations and then yanking them away at the last minute.

Ultimately, Glass lives and dies by the viewer’s interest in seeing how the story of Unbreakable and Split concludes. Those who were already lukewarm on the previous two films have little reason to endure the new feature’s missteps. For filmgoers who were swept up in the stirring spirit of David Dunn’s origin story or who trembled at Kevin Crumb’s B-movie madness and mutations, the new film’s earnest pathos and sheer conceptual novelty are likely worth the toll of some middling-to-bad Shyamalan dialogue and pacing. For all of Glass’ pitfalls, it’s still an intriguing experiment, a sincere effort to think lucidly about the parameters of a genre that – in the nearly two decades since Unbreakable – has been subsumed by slick blockbuster breeziness. Shyamalan’s triptych is not a faintly contemptuous deconstruction of superhero conventions in the manner of, say, Watchmen. However, it shares with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ revolutionary comic an interest in how such Olympians individuals might function in the real world, where heroes die every day and stay dead, forever.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The House That Jack Built'.
January 4, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

You Might Be the Killer

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Brett Simmons / Premiered online on Dec. 4, 2018

You Might Be the Killer begins in media res: Covered in blood and fleeing a knife-wielding masked maniac, nebbishy summer-camp manager Sam (Fran Kranz) rings his friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) on his smartphone. She – being a horror-film geek – gamely attempts to help extricate Sam from his trope-laden slasher-flick situation, but by the film’s 15-minute mark, she’s already sheepishly suggested the titular hypothetical. Director Brett Simmons unleashes the film’s pre-spoiled twist so early, the viewer naturally expects another shoe to drop. Sadly, the feature doesn’t have much up its sleeve other than low-budget gore, pointless structural zig-zagging, and trite, overwritten cleverness. Franz channels a bug-eyed Bruce Campbell in Sam’s struggle against the story’s ancient evil, but the sneaky stoner pathos he brought to The Cabin in the Woods (2011) was a better fit for the actor. The comparison evoked by his presence is unfortunate: Killer is an amusing but disposable feature-length joke, rather than a brilliant meta-textual mind-screw.  Rating: C [Now available to stream on Shudder and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Into the Dark: Pooka!

2018 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Nacho Vigalondo / Premiered online on Dec. 7, 2018

Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes; Colossal) is known for stories in which identities (and sometimes entire people) fragment and metamorphose, Jekyll-and-Hyde-style. That theme is perhaps most explicit in Pooka!, the director’s entry in Hulu’s anthology of original horror films, Into the Dark. Struggling actor Wilson (Nyasha Hetendi) reluctantly accepts a gig capering around in a furry costume as Pooka, the year’s hottest Christmas toy. Before long, the Pooka persona – an off-putting hobgoblin that oscillates erratically between cutesy and homicidal – begins to take control of Wilson’s life. Vigalondo is cagy regarding the Pooka’s real nature. Is it a delusion? Magical curse? Opportune excuse for Wilson’s nastier impulses? This ambiguity unfortunately means that the film spins its wheels on lots of trite dual-personality mischief without any real payoff. While Pooka! is the most gratifyingly weird film in Hulu’s series to date, it’s still a chintzy, half-baked horror effort, where neither the ideas nor the execution justify the feature-length running time. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Hulu.]

Christmas Presence

2018 / UK / 85 min. / Dir. by James Edward Cook / Premiered online on Dec. 13, 2018

The prelude to Christmas Presence – titled Why Hide? in its native UK – teases a straightforward Insidious-style ghost story, but most of the feature feels like a banal and unpleasantly sour indie drama about Britain Today. Six mismatched acquaintances gather over the holidays at a posh but remote country house, where they get roaringly drunk and snipe at each other’s politics, careers, and lifestyles. For a long time, the creepy stuff is relegated to stray twitching shadows, before it suddenly ramps up with a vengeance. This kind of slow-burn, single-location chiller can theoretically be effective, even on a modest budget, but the screenplay for Christmas Presence has absolutely no clue where to focus the viewer’s attention. Accordingly, what should have been a relatively simple story ends up feeling needlessly complex: a meandering confusion of lazy character archetypes and shrill interpersonal melodrama that is only fitfully interested in ripping off Stephen King’s ItRating: C- [Now available to stream on Shudder.]

The House That Jack Built

2018 / Denmark / 152 min. / Dir. by Lars von Trier / Premiered in select cities and online on Dec. 14, 2018

The House That Jack Built is, remarkably enough, Lars von Trier’s first overt foray into that evergreen art-horror subject, the serial killer. Much as the provocative Danish director’s minimalist Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) comprise a matched set, Jack quite deliberately mirrors the filmmaker’s masterful erotic epic Nyphomaniac (2013). Like that film, von Trier’s latest is an episodic thing, built on the scaffolding of a confessional conversation: Here, an unseen, dyspeptic companion (Bruno Ganz) listens to the self-flattering ramblings of the titular Jack (Matt Dillon), an architect who has murdered dozens of victims. Jack is too bluntly vicious, too thematically bleary, and – in its final stretch –  too damn weird to convert von Trier skeptics. At times, the film disappears so far up its own ass that it suggests self-parody. Still, there’s plenty to admire: clever deconstruction of serial-killer tropes; haunting, ghoulish tableaus; chthonic allusions to The Divine Comedy; and plenty of Nymphomanic’s dark cheekiness.  Rating: B [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.)

Bird Box

2018 / USA / 124 min. / Dir. by Susanne Bier / Premiered online on Dec. 21, 2018

Bird Box has a killer cold open, in which Malorie (Sandra Bullock) lays out this sci-fi thriller’s conceit in curt, almost vicious commands to her 5-year-old charges, the nameless Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). Rule No. 1: Don’t ever take off your blindfold, as the slightest glimpse of the mysterious entities lurking all around can drive people to suicidal madness. Unfortunately, what follows that prelude reveals Bird Box as a clunky, middling rehash of tired apocalyptic-fiction tropes. The film keeps flashing back to the direct aftermath of its unconventional Armageddon, which shatters the present-day story’s momentum while also underlining that the Living Dead drama of those past-set ensemble scenes is meaningless. (Clearly, only Malorie and the kids survived.) Perhaps the time-hopping and gimmicky creatures work better on the pages of John Malerman’s original novel, as even the estimable Danish director Susanne Bier has trouble wrangling the material’s wobbly components into a sturdy cinematic form. Rating: C [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

2018 / USA, UK / approx. 90 min. (varies) / Dir. by David Slade / Premiered online on Dec. 28, 2018

Bandersnatch isn’t just the first feature-length entry in Netflix’s bleak sci-fi anthology, Black Mirror. It’s also the streaming company’s first experiment with interactive fiction. Bandersnatch allows viewers to direct the trajectory of the story, which has numerous possible tangents and endings. Set in 1984, the film concerns programming prodigy Stefan (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who longs to design a cutting-edge, choose-your-path adventure for a trendy video-game company. Reality soon starts to unravel for Stefan, a disintegration signaled by the feature’s Lewis Carroll-derived title and articulated with a retro-futurist vibe that evokes John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and David Cronenberg. Although Bandersnatch never quite transcends its self-aware gimmick, writer/creator Charlie Brooker and director David Slade employ it for a darkly funny and authentically unsettling work of existential horror, one that both involves and implicates the viewer. (Or is it “controller” now?) The illusion of choice is a perennial sci-fi subject, but Netflix, in its self-reflexive way, finds a fresh means to explore it. Rating: B [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

Banner for Every Horror Films of 2018, Ranked
December 27, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Very, Very Good and the Horrid

Last year was an unusually strong one for the horror genre, in terms of both artistic merit and the broader pop-cultural context. (Any year in which a straight-no-chaser indie horror feature can run away with a $250 million box office and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar is momentous.) Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that 2018’s horror offerings would feel like a bit of a letdown, a return to the more typical distribution of quality, wherein a few dark jewels stand out in a sea of mediocrity and outright garbage.

Looking back over the smoking ruins of 2018 — both in the cinematic and real-world sense — some of the year’s best horror cinema seemed to be absorbed with doom: variations on the notion that an awful fate is (or at least seems) utterly inescapable and unalterable. Beyond that sensation of a cataclysm slouching its way forward, a potent atmosphere of pessimism and fatalism also ran through the horror of 2018. Looking back over films as diverse at Annihilation, Beast, Hereditary, The Little Stranger, Mandy, and Suspiria, one is inclined toward the kind of anguished Old Testament sentiment voiced by Job: The thing which I greatly feared has come upon me.

What follows is an all-inclusive assessment of this year’s theatrical horror features, ranked from worst to best. A feature film qualifies for this list if it had an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, and could be viewed theatrically by the ticketed general public in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

31. Slender Man

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Sylvain White / Opened in wide release on Aug. 10, 2018

It takes more than mere creative incompetence and a dearth of scares for a film to reach the nadir of these rankings. What makes Sylvain White’s jaw-droppingly terrible Slender Man the Worst Horror Film of 2018 is just how spectacularly incoherent it proves to be. The plot isn’t convoluted per se, but it is so ineptly conveyed that it becomes virtually impossible to parse. Forget apprehending what the titular bogeyman wants or what its powers are: It’s often challenging to puzzle out what the hell is even happening at any given moment. (White doesn’t deserve all of the blame here. The absence of the most promising tidbits from the film’s first trailer hints that studio monkeying is partly responsible.) That such baffling movie scrapple was crapped into multiplexes in the service of a hackneyed and forgettable teens-vs.-creepypasta story – rather than, say, some kind of misguided avant-garde experiment – is the ultimate insult

30. The Predator

2018 / USA / 107 min / Dir. by Shane Black / Opened in wide release on Sept. 14, 2018

The worst film Shane Black has ever made, by a depressingly enormous margin. In an attempt to pay homage to John McTiernan’s masterful and hyper-masculine 1987 original, The Predator takes a unceremonious dump all over its legacy. Embarrassingly terrible for a Hollywood franchise film.

29. The Meg

2018 / USA, China / 113 min. / Dir. by Jon Turteltaub / Opened in wide release on Aug. 10, 2018

Ever wondered what one of those crappy sci-fi horror “mockbusters” from The Asylum would look like if it was produced for $150 million? Director Jon Turteltaub made one. A film in which Jason Statham fights a 70-ft shark was always going to be stupid, but did it have to be this dull and disdainful of fun?

28. Winchester

2018 / Australia, USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Michael and Peter Spierig / Opened in wide release on Feb. 2, 2018

There’s a touch of daft ambition in the Spierig Brothers’ effort to weave an ahistorical ghost story and anti-gun morality tale (huh?) out of the real-world weirdness of the Winchester Mystery House. Of course, there’s also a touch of daft ambition in jumping headfirst off a cliff.

27. Venom

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Ruben Fleischer / Opened in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

Sony and Ruben Fleischer attempt to turn Spider-Man’s nastiest nemesis into the anti-hero in a stand-alone body-horror action blockbuster. Unfortunately, the weirder bits aren’t remotely weird enough to justify Venom’s moronic superhero monotony.

26. Assassination Nation

2018 / USA / 108 min. / Dir. by Sam Levinson / Opened in select cities on Sept. 21, 2018

What happens when a writer-director gets it in their head to modernize The Crucible as an unholy hybrid of CW teen kitsch, sub-Tarantino edginess, and The Purge franchise? Assassination Nation happens: a gory, pseudo-woke thriller than doesn’t have a politically or morally cogent thought in its pretty little head.

25. Insidious: The Last Key

2018 / USA / 103 min. / Dir. by Adam Robitel / Opened in wide release on Jan. 5, 2018

The kindest thing one can say about the fourth entry in the increasingly idea-starved Insidious franchise is that the producers remain admirably determined to center their horror series around an emotionally vulnerable septuagenarian heroine (Lin Shaye). Sadly, The Last Key is otherwise a tedious grab-bag of soulless haunted-house shocks.

24. Hell Fest

2018 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Gregory Plotkin / Opened in select cities on Sept. 28, 2018

Hell Fest is saddled with chintzy production values, an embarrassing script, and terrible performances. And yet there’s an elemental pleasure in watching an old-school slasher flick like this unspool with such guileless confidence, and without superfluous, franchise-minded world-building.

23. The Nun

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Corin Hardy / Opened in wide release on Sept. 7, 2018

The Nun boasts some excellent, creepy production design that evokes the classic horror features of the 1930s and ’40s, but that’s about all Corin Hardy’s prequel-spinoff to The Conjuring has going for it. It’s the platonic ideal of the crappy multiplex horror release ca. 2018: all aimless, mechanical jump-scares, ineffectively shored up with muddled “mythology.”

22. Truth or Dare

2018 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Jeff Wadlow / Opened in wide release on April 13, 2018

A rather ridiculous attempt to turn a drinking game into a feature-length horror story turns out to be … not as dreadful as it could have been? Granted, Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare is trash, but it’s intermittently entertaining trash that’s almost charmingly committed to its confused premise.

21. Anna and the Apocalypse

2017 / UK / 93 min. / Dir. by John McPhail / Opened in select U.S. cities on Nov. 30, 2018

John McPhail’s zombie Christmas musical splatter comedy is the inflection point in these rankings where the year’s horror features shift from bad to passable. There’s little in Anna and the Apocalypse that’s an outright misfire – excepting some of the later songs and a too-cartoonish antagonist – but it also feels like a complete waste of a promising genre mash-up.

20. The Possession of Hannah Grace

2018 / USA / 86 min. / Dir. by Diederik Van Rooijen / Opened in wide release on Nov. 30, 2018

Director Diederik Van Rooijen’s feature has a ruinously generic title, but while Hannah Grace is drearily beholden to demon-possession conventions, it’s also an odd departure from them. Beginning where such stories typically end, the film builds a kind of locked-room thriller around a late-night morgue attendant and a corpse infused with Satanic hoodoo. This glumly functional film is often stuck wandering in circles, but it’s also peculiar enough to leave an impression.

19. Bad Samaritan

2018 / USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Dean Devlin / Opened in select cities on May 4, 2018

Dean Devlin’s dunderheaded but modestly enjoyable serial-killer thriller has a few marks in its favor, principally Robert Sheehan, better than the film deserves as a petty thief who stumbles into the lair of a human monster. Given a bigger budget, a surer hand than Devlin, and a more ruthless commitment to its horror elements, Bad Samaritan might have emerged as halfway-decent art-horror trash.

18. The First Purge

2018 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Gerard McMurray / Opened in wide release on July 4, 2018

The Purge films have always been conceptually ludicrous, but with The First Purge, director Gerard McMurray at least manages to fashion the franchise’s latest chapter into grisly, semi-woke fun. The feature’s politics are only an inch deep, but at least they’re intelligible this time around, with McMurray fully committed to highlighting the plain but unfortunately relevant racial and class angles in the material.

17. Halloween

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by David Gordon Green / Opened in wide release on Oct. 19, 2018

The Predator might have been a complete boondoggle, but the sequel-slash-reboot to John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece was somehow the genre's bigger disappointment in 2018. The talent involved was promising – David Gordon Green directing! Jamie Lee Curtis returning! – but the resulting feature is little more than a slick, misguided Halloween fan film. At least Carpenter’s new score is aces.

16. Lizzie

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Craig William Macneill / Opened in select cities on Sept. 14, 2018

To explore the why of Lizzie Borden’s real-world crimes, director Craig William Macneill adopts an approach halfway between psychological character study and revisionist feminist history. Unfortunately, Lizzie is neither insightful nor sharp-elbowed, just an atmospheric but turgid crime-horror flick that indulges in unnecessary structural shenanigans.

15. Overlord

2018 / USA, Canada / 110 min. / Dir. by Julius Avery / Opened in wide release on Nov. 9, 2018

One is reluctant to call Overlord a failure, given that it unequivocally delivers on its conceptual promise: a throwback World War II-era actioner that takes a hard left into the sci-fi horror of the Castle Wolfenstein video-game series. Perhaps it’s simply that when compared to amusing Nazisploitation kitsch such Dead Snow and Iron Sky, Overlord feels strangely prosaic and straitlaced.

14. Upgrade

2018 / Australia / 100 min. / Dir. by Leigh Whannell / Opened in wide release on June 1, 2018

Director Leigh Whannell reaches behind the couch and pulls out a VHS tape in a ragged cardboard sleeve dated 1993. Inside is Upgrade, a modestly entertaining blend of action, sci-fi, horror, and black comedy that feels like something from an earlier era of genre filmmaking. Predictable and ludicrous but oh-so-stylish, the film features Logan Marshall-Green showing off some truly bonkers physical acting.

13. The House with a Clock in Its Walls

2018 / USA /  105 min. / Dir. by Eli Roth / Opened in wide release on Sept. 21, 2018

The Good: A pleasant, throwback atmosphere of warmth tinged with danger; Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as quirky next-door frenemies; Eli Roth proving he can deliver a film that isn’t sophomorically provocative; Blanchett’s chic purple ensembles. The Bad: So mild and by-the-numbers it will probably vanish down the memory hole in a year.

12. Unfriended: Dark Web

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. Stephen Susco / Opened in wide release on July 20, 2018

Director Stephen Susco preserves the MacBook-desktop formal conceit of Unfriended and throws out everything else, including the supernatural hook. Instead, Dark Web serves up an abrasive, ludicrous, and yet chilling update to thrillers like The Game and The Net – one suitable for an era in which kitchen appliances are WiFi-enabled and personal privacy has been quietly strangled in the alley.

11. Good Manners

2018 / Brazil / 135 min. / Dir. by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas / Opened in select U.S. cities on July 27, 2018

Perhaps not the Brazilian social-realist, urban-musical, lesbian-romance werewolf movie the world deserves, but the Brazilian social-realist, urban-musical, lesbian-romance werewolf movie the world needs right now.

10. Unsane

2018 / USA / Dir. by Steven Soderbergh / Opened in wide release on March 23, 2018

At first glance, Unsane resembles one of director Steven Soderbergh’s “for the suits” features. It Girl? Check: Claire Foy. Genre picture? Check: psychological horror. Zeitgeist relevance? Check: #MeToo angle. However, Soderbergh’s latest plays more like the chilly cynicism of Side Effects filtered through his experimental inclinations, resulting in a strange, skin-crawling entry in the ever-fecund subgenre where the protagonist may or may not be losing their mind.

9. The Little Stranger

2018 / UK / 111 min. / Dir. by Lenny Abrahamson / Opened in select U.S. cities on Aug. 31, 2018

While not an unqualified success, The Little Stranger represents one of 2018’s more impressive feats of cinematic adaptation. Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Lucinda Coxon translate Sarah Waters’ unsettling, ambiguous Interwar novel into an equally unsettling, ambiguous film. Contrary to the feature’s marketing, it’s barely a horror picture at all, but so intensely Gothic that it almost drips with Midlands damp.

8. Strangers: Prey at Night

2018 / UK, USA / 85 min. / Dir. by Johannes Roberts / Opened in wide release on March 9, 2018

If there was one truly unexpected development in the horror landscape of 2018, it’s that the overrated 2008 home-invasion thriller The Strangers would receive a sequel that, in its best moments, attained a giallo-level aesthetic intensity. Prey at Night is mostly just a gratifying maniacs-vs.-family slasher picture. And then: Bonnie Taylor’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” starts playing over the PA at a deserted swimming pool ...

7. Annihilation

2018 / UK, USA / 115 min. / Dir. by Alex Garland / Opened in wide release on Feb. 23, 2018

Alex Garland follows up his 2014 sci-fi masterwork Ex Machina with an ambitious and self-assured adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s enigmatic novel Annihilation. While at time straying into predictable creature-feature rhythms, Garland’s film is consistently bracing in terms of its formal artfulness. And by the third act, it turns seriously weird, radical, and mesmerizing.

6. Border

2018 / Sweden / 110 min. / Dir. by Ali Abbasi / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 26, 2018

Between his twice-adapted vampire novel Let the Right One In and the screenplay for Border (reworked from his own short story), writer John Ajvide Lindqvist is well on his way to establishing a shared universe of dark European folklore reimagined for a modern world of loneliness and hidden depravity. Ali Abbasi’s unhurried and twisty supernatural thriller is the kind of cinematic curio that defies genre categorization, but it’s foremost a film that both revels in and humanizes the grotesque.

5. Suspiria

2018 / 152 min. / Italy, USA / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 26, 2018

All credit to Luca Guadagnino: Faced with the seemingly lose-lose challenge of remaking Dario Argento’s hallucinatory 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the director essentially gave birth to its evil twin. Severe instead of florid and political instead of mythic, Guadagnino’s feature is a ferociously feminine invocation of all the unsettled horrors of the 20th century. It might be content to be thought-provoking rather than ground-breaking, but it’s also utterly horrific in bizarre, innovative ways.

4. Mandy

2018 / 121 min. / USA / Dir. by Panos Cosmatos / Opened in select U.S. cities on Sept. 14, 2018

It’s as though director Panos Cosmatos read a sniffy review that called his trippy but narcotic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow “weird” and thought, “You haven't seen weird yet ...” On paper, Cosmatos’ sophomore feature Mandy is a straightforward – if gory – revenge picture. In practice, it’s an utterly deranged descent into psychedelic Rule of Cool movie logic, the sort of film where a spot-on Nicolas Cage pauses in the middle of his rampage against demonic bikers and a messianic sex cult to forge a Klingon battle axe. Because why the hell not? The future stoner classic of 2018.

3. Beast

2017 / 107 min. / UK / Dir. by Michael Pearce / Opened in select U.S. cities on May 11, 2018

A genre purist would probably maintain that Beast is not really a horror picture, but director Michael Pearce’s deeply disturbing, astonishingly confident debut speaks for itself. Set on the wind-kissed Isle of Jersey, this tale of suffocating social isolation and wild-eyed paranoia is centered on the self-pitying Moll (Jessie Buckley). When she tumbles into a romance with a charismatic bloke who might be the island’s at-large serial killer, the question that vexes Moll isn’t so much whether he's guilty but, rather, whether his guilt even matters to her – and what does that say about her? In a just world, Buckley’s performance would be a star-making turn: It's a rare actor who can turn the “psycho eye-twitch” into an understated and authentically unnerving flourish.

2. A Quiet Place

2018 / 90 min. / USA / Dir. by John Krasinksi / Opened in wide release on April 6, 2018

For the horror aficionado, there’s a distinct pleasure in observing a mainstream audience connect with an standout entry in the genre, and that’s especially true of John Krasinki’s nerve-wracking creature-feature hit A Quiet Place. Conceptually irresistible yet narratively modest, Krasinki’s film sets itself apart from other multiplex fare through two small but brilliant gestures: brutally dispatching a seemingly untouchable character before the opening title even appears, and then cutting to black on a moment of absolute perfection, exactly at the 90-minute mark. In between those bookends, the director delivers one of the best family-in-peril thrillers of the past decade, built on little more than an elemental scenario, capable performers, and Krasinki’s own nimble, freshly energized instinct for cinematic storytelling.

1. Hereditary

2018 / 127 min. / USA / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

The word-of-mouth that followed director Ari Aster’s debut feature in the wake of its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January was the kind of hype that invites scoffs from jaded horror enthusiasts. (This generation’s The Exorcist! The scariest thing you’ve ever seen!) Such hyperbole is almost never justified in the harsh sunlight of a wide release. However, when it slithered into theaters this summer, Hereditary didn’t just claim the mantle of Best Horror Film of 2018 – it was revealed as one of the most terrifying and traumatizing films of the 21st century.

If, by chance, the reader has not yet submitted themselves to Aster’s blood-curdling vision, the less said about the film the better. Suffice to say that Hereditary may not be the best horror film since the turn of the millennium, but it’s almost certainly the one that leaves the deepest scars. The feature contains images that sear themselves into the viewer’s brain, providing an unfailing reserve of nightmare fuel for years to come. Such suffering is the toll one pays for Aster’s bleak yet deeply resonant observations regarding humanity’s enthrallment to irresistible forces: genetic sequences, parental abuses, and the whims of the unquiet dead.

Much of the credit for this darkling triumph naturally goes to Aster’s virtuosic direction, as well as Colin Stetson’s almost preternaturally upsetting avant-garde compositions – a contender for the best film score of the year in a field with some stiff competition. Nonetheless, what elevates Hereditary from chilly formal exercise into something profoundly, calamitously harrowing are its performances, including excellent turns from Gabriel Byrne, Anne Dowd, and Milly Shapiro. However, the film’s clear breakout star is Alex Wolff, whose portrayal of adolescent son Peter acutely conveys the boy’s crushing sense of guilt and his creeping awareness of an approaching doom.

That said, the center ring of Hereditary undeniably belongs to the incomparable Toni Collette, delivering a career-best turn that is (somehow) simultaneously an authentic, spellbinding, and comically unhinged performance. Decades from now, when the gatekeepers of the horror canon look back on 2018, it’s going to be challenging for them to choose just one of Collette’s numerous iconic moments in Hereditary to exemplify the film’s hellish intensity. Of course, there’s only one moment that they probably can pick, when all is said and done: Collette, bug-eyed, face contorted, mouth a yawning abyss of Saturnian fury, shrieking across the dinner table at her petrified son: I am your MOTHER!!!

Tags: Year in Review Andrew Wyatt

Banner graphic for the Best Films of 2018.
December 26, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Lens Critics Reveal Their Top 20 Lists for 2018

Although the calendar year is an admittedly arbitrary framework for the discussion of cinema, when the end of December approaches, even the most high-minded writer is usually compelled to look back on the past 12 months and catalog their favorite films. (List-making is fun, after all.) Accordingly, now that 2018 is drawing to a close, the Lens critics have labored on their own individual inventories of the best films released this year. Each contributing critic – Cait Lore, Joshua Ray, and Andrew Wyatt – has prepared a list of their top 20 films of 2018 and also offered some brief thoughts on their top 10 features. Next month, the critics will publish a roundtable discussion of the list, wherein they reflect on the year’s overall characteristics, enthuse over their shared favorite films, and knife-fight over their rabid disagreements.

For the purposes of this post, a “film of 2018” is a feature with an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 31 and Dec. 31, 2018, or an exclusive online premiere during the same period.

Cait Lore

20. Minding the Gap

19. Support the Girls

18. Custody

17. Incredibles 2

16. Blockers

15. Madeline’s Madeline

14. Jeannette: The Story of Joan of Arc

13. Suspiria 

12. Thoroughbreds

11. You Were Never Really There

10. Beast

2018 / UK / 107 min. / Dir. by Michael Pearce / Opened in select cities on May 11, 2018 

Something sinister is stalking Jersey’s countryside. Who (or what) it is no one knows, but it seems to be tied to one small town’s bucolic landscapes. A serial killer lurks in the forests, murdering little girls and filling their mouths with dirt. Moll (Jessie Buckley) thinks it could be her impossibly hot boyfriend (a note-perfect Johnny Flynn). But does she even care? Beast walks a fine line between high- and low-art filmmaking, evoking some of the best of 1970s genre cinema. An ambitious debut featuring a breakout performance from Buckley, Beast is a post-pastoral horror film for Brexit-era Britain.

9. Hereditary

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

In Ari Aster’s Hereditary, there’s a suspicious lack of anyone — doctors, police, detectives — that could possibly save Annie and her family from their themselves. Aster seems to assert that madness is a birthright, one with an ironclad grip. Sitting comfortably next to films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, horror is in Hereditary’s DNA. That being said, at times Hereditary seems like an accidental horror film. Aster’s feature, with table-talk scenes capable of shattering nerves, seems most interested in aligning itself with the films of Ingmar Bergman. It’s the things that can’t be unsaid, such as the scornful invective Toni Collette’s Annie directs at her son, that haunt every frame of Aster’s debut feature.    

8. We the Animals

2018 / USA / 94 min. / Dir. by Jeremiah Zagar / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018 

Favoring impressionistic storytelling technique and voice-over narration, We the Animals brings viewers unbearably close to its lead protagonist. Noah, nearly 10 years old, feels as if his life is closing in on him. It has a destabilizing effect on the boy, and so he turns to art projects to try and document the changes happening around him. The film, at its best, explores the early pangs of queer desire with quiet courage. These scenes, in which Noah is left awestruck by his sexual stirrings, are as disquieting as they are rapturous. 

7. The Wild Boys

2018 / France / 110 min. / Dir. by Bertrand Mandico / Opened in select cities on Aug. 24, 2018

Heaven-sent for the world’s tender perverts, The Wild Boys plays like Lord of the Flies by way of James Bidgood. The viewer watches naturalism collapse in on itself, giving way to lurid technicolor in Bertrand Mandico’s erotic odyssey. In a time when Hollywood, now abruptly queer-conscious, has found a way to appropriate queer stories into humdrum morality plays, a voice like Mandico’s is desperately needed. Perhaps the only film that can clear a room quicker than Suspiria, Mandico’s debut functions as a hyper-erotic critique of biological determinism. It also has dick-fountains. God bless this film’s filthy little heart!  

6. The Favourite

2018 / UK / 121 min. / Dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos / Opened in select cities on Nov. 23, 2018

Starting with The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos has now made his last three features with Film4, a UK production company known for kitchen-sink-style pictures. While Lanthimos continues to be one of the most reliable filmmakers working today, his last two features raise some alarm bells for hardcore fans of the Greek Weird Wave enfant terrible. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are, after all, almost “normal” movies, by Dogtooth standards. With that in mind, it is a great relief to see a film like The Favourite come from Lanthimos and Film4’s partnership. Based on the real-life romances of Queen Anne, this is a biopic with one eye on the present. It feels like a story that only Lanthimos could tell, and one that seems to open up new routes for the director’s audacious approach to narrative and world-building. Few things in this rotten world ever really change, says The Favourite, least of all the petty games of the ruling class. And, for what it’s worth, watching Olivia Coleman eat cake, vomit, and then eat more cake, only to vomit again, is the scene by which 2018 will be remembered.

5. Paddington 2

2018 / UK  / 104 min. / Dir. by Paul King / Opened in wide release on Jan 12, 2018

Not since the original Mary Poppins has London been so delightfully drawn. Literally. It’s a pop-up-book that catches Paddington’s eye, one with fanciful portraits of London landmarks, for his sweet Aunt Lucy’s birthday. The film dazzles, as Paddington moves through these iconic London locations, hot on the heels of a show-stealing Hugh Grant. The film breezes through beautifully constructed visual gags, with references to Ealing comedies that will delight even the most jaded filmgoers. As it turns out, this year’s most kindly feature is also the funniest, and it’s better than the original, too. 

4. The Third Murder

2018 / Japan / 125 min. / Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda / Opened in select cities on July 20, 2018

Best known for his heart-shredding stories about family affairs, Hirokazu Kore-eda is repeatedly boxed in by critics as the spiritual successor to Ozu. Even now, a dozen films later, he still finds himself correcting journalists: Class, not family, is the director’s primary subject. The Ozu comparison, Kore-eda fears, de-politicizes his work. With its opening scene – in which one man bashes in another’s head – The Third Murder seems to set the record straight: Kore-eda films aren’t for tea time anymore. A courtroom drama that still manages to stay true to the director’s roots, it breathes new life into one of Japan’s finest filmmakers. Kore-eda’s track record is near spotless, but this one is his best film since 2008’s instant classic Still Walking.

3. First Reformed

2018 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018

When speaking about this year’s Suspiria, another St. Louis-based critic described the film as a “roadmap through the history of European art films.” One can also think of First Reformed as a similar type of roadmap, but the history is far more personal. “You can see a number of lessons in his face that he doesn’t have to act. Life has put them there,” says Paul Schrader in an interview with NPR. He’s speaking about the decision to cast Ethan Hawke in the role of the Rev. Ernest Toller, but the same sentiment can be extended to the director himself. The roadmap here takes audiences through Schrader’s personal film history (Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky). The lessons, though, the ones that life put there, are lurking in every frame, in each moment of deafening silence that Toller confronts. As esoteric as it is insightful, First Reformed will provide viewers with truths to mine from for years to come.   

2. Shirkers

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Sandi Tan / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

There is a certain type of movie that feels both immediately familiar and undeniably original when it is viewed for the first time. Shirkers, like Ghost World and Diary of a Teenage Girl before it, is perhaps the first in the coming-of-age counterculture canon to take the form of a self-archiving documentary feature. A film-within-a-film, Tan’s 2018 feature seeks to breathe new life into her uncompleted 1992 feature of the same name. When she was a teenager in the 1990s, Tan’s film — think the French New Wave meets underground comix — would have been groundbreaking. Then, at the start of post-production, both the film and Tan’s dear friend went missing. Twenty-five years in the making, Shirkers shows what happens when the past won’t stay buried. It’s a courageous piece of filmmaking and one that’s bound to leave an indelible mark on both the hearts of wayward teenagers and feminist film history. 

1. Bisbee ‘17

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Robert Greene / Opened in select cities on Sept. 5, 2018

Like Shirkers, the best film of the year employs both a hauntological lens and a genre-bending approach to the documentary form. Bisbee ‘17, however, does so on a far larger scope. Borrowing from the most unusual sources — the American musical, Westerns, Bertolt Brecht, and even podcasts — director Robert Greene attempts to “write” with the past (and the documentary form) to engage with the present day. A career best for Greene, Bisbee ‘17 is both challenging and astute, inventive and timely; it’s a landmark in documentary cinema.

Joshua Ray

Honorable Mentions: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blindspotting; The Death of Stalin; Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami; Incredibles 2; McQueen; Memoir of War; Minding the Gap; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; The Tale; Wildlife

20. The Great Buddha+ 

19. We the Animals

18. Lean on Pete 

17. Madeline’s Madeline

16. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

15. Private Life

14. First Man

13. The Favourite

12. Western

11. Shirkers

10. Paddington 2

2018 / UK  / 104 min. / Dir. by Paul King / Opened in wide release on Jan 12, 2018

Paddington 2 smartly expands the world of the lovable British icon to include Brexit-era nationalism, impulses to which the first film only alluded. The titular talking bear is othered and ostracized but retains his remarkable resilience, inspiring even the coldest of hearts. He’s exactly the hero that 2018 needs. Paul King's film also boasts the best action set piece of the year (sorry, Christopher McQuarrie) and an inventive filmmaking that’s alive with the possibilities of the medium. By all rights, this kids and family affair should be as sticky and sweet as Paddington's beloved marmalade sandwiches, but instead it's a reminder that greatness can come in any shape, size, or species.

9. Shoplifters

2018 / Japan / 121 min. / Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda / Opened in select cities on Nov. 23, 2018

With Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda builds a world in which his characters are people so forgotten by the outside world they can freely create and live in their own fantasies, forging a family of their own choosing. Of course, anyone who refuses to play by society's rigid rules eventually becomes an enemy of the people, and halfway through Kore-eda's gentle deconstruction of his own tendency towards the maudlin, the heartwarming transforms into heartbreaking. A high-wire act that could have gone disastrously wrong, Shoplifters presents the filmmaker at his most expertly balanced, in marked contrast to an unjustly imbalanced world.

8. Happy as Lazzaro 

2018 / Italy / 125 min. / Dir. by Alice Rohrwacher / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 30, 2018

Like Shoplifters, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a fantasy bifurcated by world-altering revelations that undermine its characters' realities. In this Pasolini-inspired fable, holy fool Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a blank-slate receptacle for the abuses of power that fuel the world he inhabits. After surviving a life of indentured servitude and one nasty fall, Lazzaro (read: Lazarus) reawakens to find himself a time traveler, stumbling into an era in which previous systemic failings are now institutionalized. Rohrwacher's third feature is her most ambitious, presenting a refreshing vision of moral condemnation and magical realism that feels equally reverent to the past and awake to our contemporary times.

7. Burning

2018 / South Korea / 148 min. / Dir. by Lee Chang-Dong / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018

The pace of Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning might have alienated viewers if the time spent uncomfortably nestling itself into the psyche of Lee (Ah-in Yoo) weren’t so transfixing. Over its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the twentysomething writer protagonist embroils himself in a ménage à trois of sorts with an old classmate and her affluent, mysterious boyfriend. Throughout, Chang-Dong maintains a razor’s edge of suspense, and the film’s final moment reveals its center’s rotten core, wholly reconfiguring the viewer’s experience. All the while, the Korean filmmaker also manages to encapsulate an entire generation’s identity-based anxieties, presenting a world of people in limbo, unable to truly understand each other or even themselves. 

6. Suspiria 

2018 / Italy, USA / 142 min. / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on October 26, 2018

Having garnered widespread acclaim and cultural cachet with last year’s Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino doesn’t appear to be concerned anymore with such fruitful recognition. Instead, with his reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, he crafts a grotesque Grand Guignol that’s high on ambition and low on good taste. Thank God. Suspiria is the most giddy bad time at the movies in 2018, a violent and operatic ode to womanhood that reflects the schadenfreude politics of now. The spiritual polar opposite of the other movie-movie of the year, Paddington 2, Guadagnino's film maudit infuses Fassbinder’s radical political cinema with every cinematic trick in its maker’s wide-ranging arsenal, gleefully dancing its way to a bloody female revolution.

5. The Other Side of the Wind

2018 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by Orson Welles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018 

As a poison-pen letter to Hollywood, The Other Side of the Wind is Orson Welles’ angriest work, and it’s certainly justified. After boy wonder Welles made “the greatest film of all time” with his debut, Citizen Kane, RKO massacred Welles’ second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a work that even in its truncated and altered form bests its predecessor in sheer cinematic elegance. The next 30 years in the wilderness seem to have done a number on Welles, and his finally completed final film condemns the nastiest sides of the Dream Factory and the privileged people who run it. A feat of meta-textual showmanship — a late-in-life director attempting to resurrect his career with a wild ride of a film is both Wind’s story and its backstory — the decades-gestating film is even more dazzling in its kaleidoscopic construction. Although principal photography ended in 1976, it’s the 2018 release that looks the most brazenly futuristic.

4. Let the Sunshine In

2017 / France / 94 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities on April 27, 2018

Unfairly accused by some as being Claire Denis Lite, Let the Sunshine In is nevertheless as brutally frank about the complex interiority of its lead character as her two previous films, White Material and Bastards. It’s just that Sunshine deals with Isabelle’s (Juliette Binoche) monomaniacal search for romantic fulfilment, rather than explorations of a man’s violent heart; a rich and filling dessert after two lean, mean courses. Although the thematic subject matter is new to Denis (her sublime Friday Night comes the closest), this romantic-comedy subversion is still as wildly creative as any in the master filmmaker’s oeuvre. It’s an elliptical and structurally adventurous work with a strident and erratic focal point, a character who becomes the perfect showcase for Binoche, one of the great actors of the present moment.

3. Zama

2017 / Argentina / 115 min. / Dir. by Lucrecia Martel / Opened in select cities on April 13, 2018

Zama is Lucrecia Martel's return to narrative film after her surreal and insular 2008 “thriller," The Headless Woman. On the surface, this adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto's postmodern deconstruction of 18th-century colonialism couldn't be further from Martel's previous film, but the Argentine director puts her finger right on the bourgeois pulse she's always been condemning. To see a middle-management Spanish corregedor (Daniel Giménez Cacho) lose his head within the bureaucratic system he himself supports is one of the year's greatest pleasures, and this is all before the film morphs into a damning and cinematically thrilling journey into the heart of darkness that is the masculine drive for supremacy. 

2. Support the Girls

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Andrew Bujalski / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

Support the Girls is one of the smallest films on this list but also one of its biggest triumphs. Andrew Bujalski’s film about a day in the life of Lisa (Regina King), the manager of a Hooters-like bar and grill, reads like the pilot of a new sitcom, but it plays like the funniest Dardennes brothers' film ever made. At every turn, the film is a testament to women's defiance in the face of adversity, whether it manifests as the smallest inconveniences or as biblical tests of faith. It also philosophically challenges the notion of self, seemingly without much effort. The work is there, though, with monumentally alive performances from Hall, Shayna McHayle, and Haley Lu Richardson, among many others. The final rooftop howl into the sky from those three actors cements Support the Girls as the year's most endlessly repeatable anthems of self-worth.

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

2018 / USA / 119 min. / Dir. by Barry Jenkins / Opened in select cities on Dec. 14, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk is just as swooningly romantic and heartbreaking as Barry Jenkins’ previous film, Best Picture Oscar-winner Moonlight. The two are remarkably similar in scope, both tracing the decades of a central relationship made impossible by the social forces that work against it. The film demonstrates a refinement in Jenkins’ skill at repurposing the ache and longing of the color-coded melodramas of art-house giants Jacques Demy and Wong Kar-Wai, in particular. Like those masters, Jenkins so expertly captures the elation of falling in love that his characters would all but levitate if they weren't so damagingly grounded by the reality of the world in which they live.

In adapting James Baldwin's landmark 1974 novel, Jenkins furthers the author's glorious act of giving black voices a resounding platform. Although the author is ever-present in the film — it retains his masterly prose in lead character Tish's (KiKi Lane) narration — If Beale Street Could Talk isn't a typical literary adaptation. On the contrary, this is a cinematic celebration of black life, depicting the centuries' worth of information exchanged in simple glances among marginalized people. Jenkins also reconfigures Baldwin's hallucinatory "happy" ending into a stark reminder of how little has changed in the intervening time, both in the characters' and black Americans' lives.

Andrew Wyatt

Honorable Mentions: Beast; Bisbee ’17; Blaze; Blindspotting; First Man; Golden Exits; Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; The Kindergarten Teacher; Lean on Pete; Mirai; Paddington 2; A Quiet Place; Revenge; Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda; Sorry to Bother You; Sweet Country; Tully; Vox Lux; We the Animals; Widows

20. Shoplifters

19. Wildlife

18. The Rider 

17. If Beale Street Could Talk 

16. Leave No Trace

15. The Cakemaker

14. The King

13. Zama

12. The Favourite

11. You Were Never Really Here

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

2018 / USA / 147 min. / Dir. by Christoper McQuarrie / Opened in wide release on July 27, 2018

The best action franchise of the 21st century has implausibly improved with each post-M:I III iteration, but it attains its jaw-dropping apotheosis with Fallout. Tom Cruise risks life and limb in some of the most spectacular action set pieces ever filmed, tempting an outright blood sacrifice for viewers’ amusement. Any one of those scenes would make Fallout a classic; assembled into one film, they constitute a kind of multiplex miracle, placing Christopher McQuarrie’s feature into the rarefied company of touchstones such as Police Story, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Whether during the 25,000-foot HALO jump, the bone-crunching men’s-room brawl, or the mind-blowing Parisian breakout-cum-getaway, the film consistently exudes an astonishing assurance, ferocious and confident but never weightless. One can almost hear Mr. Cruise rhetorically glorying: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

9. Minding the Gap

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bing Liu / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

Strictly as a keenly observed sub-culture portrait and lyrical sports documentary, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is an uncommonly accomplished work, the sort of debut feature that signals the arrival of an instantly vital filmmaker. What makes Liu’s nonfiction triumph truly great, however, is the invisible and yet pitiless way it reveals itself as something much more profound than a scruffy hangout film about three young skateboarders coming of age in Rockford, Ill. Mirroring the director’s own evolving understanding of his material, Minding the Gap emerges as a shockingly potent and intensely personal dissection of violence, trauma, race, and toxic masculinity. It’s at once wistful, woebegone, and unsentimental, the sort of dynamic, gutsy filmmaking that leaves the viewer astonished and disconsolate.

8. Eighth Grade

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bo Burnham / Opened in select cities on July 13, 2018

In a year of fantastically auspicious debut features, there was arguably none unlikelier and more miraculous than Eighth Grade, directed by a fellow who got his start performing silly parody songs on YouTube. In his touching, slice-of-life dramedy about the tribulations of newly minted adolescent Kayla (a sublimely sweet-’n’-awkward Elsie Fisher), Bo Burnham achieves a wondrous balance between affectless realism and indie quirk, discovering an inspired middle way that is at once grounded and heightened. Eighth Grade isn’t merely a so-real-it-hurts elicitation of universal 13-year-old anxieties. (The loneliness! The humiliation! The horniness!) It’s a soulful, slippery, quietly radical portrait of the Kids Today, who, it turns out, are a lot like kids from every era – just less private and more attuned to the postmodern maelstrom of performative living that’s sweeping them along.

7. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman / Opened in wide release on Dec. 14, 2018

Two decades into the superhero film’s indefatigable box-office winning streak and attendant artistic fossilization, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse swings into the multiplex like a red-and-blue bolt of radioactive plasma. To birth one of the best comic-book films of all time, Sony’s Columbia Pictures simply had to ditch the live-action actors – and then throw out every hidebound rule that has governed 21st-century computer animation. Equal parts thrilling, touching, sidesplitting, and downright hallucinatory, Spider-Verse blends its seemingly dissonant elements with such sneaky elegance, it looks virtually effortless. Establishing a new, dizzying gold standard for pop entertainment, it’s the rare film that simultaneously elevates and democratizes its genre through its ecstatic formal artistry and heartfelt characterization. Excelsior, indeed.

6. Hereditary

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

No horror feature from the past decade can compare to director Ari Aster’s indescribably terrifying debut – at least in terms of sheer, white-hot traumatizing potency. Gnawing the viewer’s nerves raw from the opening notes of composer Colin Stetson’s disquieting score, Hereditary drags the viewer – first gradually, then in a frenzy of kicking and screaming – into a pitiless occult nightmare of familial grief, guilt, and resentment. Headlining this demonic vision is the unparalleled Toni Collette, who undergoes a succession of frightful and yet wholly credible psychological upheavals as an irrevocable, unthinkable doom descends on her household. In an era when mainstream horror has become dully formulaic, Hereditary is an exemplar of the form at its most brutally unpredictable and unhinged. It’s the sort of once-a-decade cinematic experience that leaves scars — deep, lasting, and exquisite. You have been warned.

5. The Other Side of the Wind

2018 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by Orson Welles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018 

Despite – or perhaps because of – Orson Welles’ canonization as one of the all-time masters of cinema, the posthumous completion of the director’s final feature seemed like the sort of questionable artistic endeavor that could have resulted in an epic boondoggle. Happily, such pessimism was not only unwarranted but completely misplaced: The final product testifies not only to the perseverance of filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich and producer Frank Marshall but also to Welles’ unruly and enduring genius. Exhausting, impenetrable, and endlessly fascinating, The Other Side of the Wind is an eminently fitting swan song for the director, equal parts time capsule and timeless critique. A quasi-autobiographical fusillade directed squarely at Hollywood, the film arrives like a multi-camera, multi-textured whirlwind, declaring – in John Huston’s tobacco-juice growl – that it might have just rolled in from the 1970s, but it already has your number, you 21st-century cocksuckers.

4. Shirkers

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Sandi Tan / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

Equal parts sorrowful, livid, and flabbergasted, Sandi Tan’s superb artistic memoir Shirkers is the kind of vibrant, masterful documentary feature that conceals myriad layers. Initially, it assumes the form of bittersweet recollection about Tan’s formative experiences as a 19-year-old indie filmmaker in Singapore, where she and her friends channeled their cinephilia into a seemingly groundbreaking Jarmuschian feature (also titled Shirkers). Then the documentary evolves into a fraught, decades-old mystery concerning the creepy middle-aged American mentor who absconded with the friends’ film, crushing their artistic ambitions. Then it shifts again, into a more convoluted, self-lacerating meditation on youth, gender, betrayal, loss, memory, and the perilous alchemy of storytelling. Throughout, Tan maintains a disarmingly honest and ambivalent sensibility, allowing the viewer to steep uncomfortably in the vinegar of her remembrances. It’s unabashedly personal filmmaking at its most fruitful and fascinating.

3. Thoroughbreds

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Cory Finley / Opened in select cities on Mar. 9, 2018

Director Cory Finley’s pitch-perfect debut feature might be a black comedy, but it’s just as horrifying as anything in Hereditary, if only because this frosty tale of adolescent sociopaths-in-training feels unnervingly relevant in 2018. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are superb and unnervingly watchable as a pair of scheming WASP princesses – the latter already an old hand at soulless amorality and the former a disturbingly quick study. Formally flawless and utterly remorseless, Finley’s film gawks in revulsion at the warped process by which the filthy rich unlearn basic human decency, leaving a hollow that fills up with cruel ambition and narcissism. Thoroughbreds is the sort of crackling, morally gangrenous story that Nicholas Ray or Billy Wilder might have delivered, had they lived to witness the Trump Era. It’s a delectably nasty triumph, and nothing less than the feel-bad film of the year. 

2. First Reformed

2018 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018

Paul Schrader’s decades-long exploration of anguished “men in rooms” achieves its most heightened and vehemently Calvinist expression in First Reformed, an austere portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with pleading despair. Inverting the classic crisis-of-faith narrative for an era in which global devastation can be livestreamed, Schrader presents the tormented Rev. Toller (a never-better Ethan Hawke) as a man whose guilt-wracked and freshly inflamed species of Christianity has twisted him into a snarl of powerless rage and anxiety. At once cerebral, visceral, and inscrutable, First Reformed is spiritual cinema at its most staggering. It harmonizes with the works of Schrader’s illustrious forebears Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer – and yet is still its own haunted, distinctive thing, an impeccably realized vision of Christian angst that no other filmmaker could have delivered.

1. Roma

2018 / Mexico / 135 min. / Dir. by Alfonso Cuarón / Opened in select cities on Nov. 21, 2018

The breathtaking wonder of Roma is that its grandeur emerges, almost numinously, from the raw materials of prosaic childhood remembrances. By means of director Alfonso Cuarón’s heedless cinematic ambition, everyday fragments of 1970s Mexico City life – shirts fluttering lazily on rooftop clotheslines; slot-cars buzzing around a plastic track; dogshit smeared beneath a gas guzzler’s tires – attain a vivid, almost mythic resonance. In this epic tale of a Mixtec live-in housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio) and the troubled family that employs her, every shot thrums with silvery vibrancy, every detail as considered as the individual grapes in a still-life painting. Yet, miraculously, nothing about Roma feels fussy or arranged. It is a feature that feels unaccountably alive; a virtuosic rendering of the past rather than a musty re-creation. Destined to be savored and studied for years to come, it’s nothing less than the best film of 2018.

Tags: Year in Review Cait Lore Joshua Ray Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Roma'.
December 19, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Life Itself

2018 / 135 min. / Mexico, USA / Directed by Alfonso Cuarón / Opened in select cities on Nov. 21, 2018; locally and available to stream via Netflix on Dec. 14, 2018

It is apparent from the film’s first, fantastically crisp black-and-white image – a prolonged closeup of a tiled driveway, its surface periodically slopped by sudsy water – that writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s quasi-autobiographical opus Roma is going to be something special. The opening credits hypnotically fade in and out over this image while the shhhhht shhhhht of an off-screen scrub brush functions as a kind of unhurried, arrhythmic pulse. And yet the scene is anything but contemplative. Rather, it invites attentiveness and an intensely active sort of watching. Cuarón is easing the viewer into his approach with a visual and aural aperitif, attuning the senses to the overwhelming whirlwind of detail that will characterize virtually every shot over the next two hours and change. Then, there it is: For a few seconds, the water sloshing over the tiles suddenly stills, ensnaring the reflection of a commercial aircraft passing far overhead. Even in the abstract, it’s a striking moment of prosaic loveliness, but it also signals Roma’s ambition to revel in both everyday minutiae and the epic grandeur of the human experience.

Unfolding over approximately one year in the early 1970s, the film centers on the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, live-in Mixtec domestic worker in a white bourgeois household in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood (the “Roma” of the title). Her employers are Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the latter a doctor whose professional obligations often take him away from home for extended periods. Among Cleo’s duties are the care of Sofia and Antonio’s four children, Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta) Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demensa). Rounding out the household are Sofia’s elderly mother, Tereasa (Verónica Garcia), and a second Mixtec housekeeper, Adela (Nancy García García).

Drawing from his own memories of growing up in Roma, as well as the experiences of the housekeeper who is Cleo’s real-world analog, Cuarón crafts a sweeping, episodic tale of upheavals – personal, domestic, and national. At first blush, Roma might seem to be a plodding, even sluggish film, the sort of feature where earnest scrutiny is afforded to banalities such as a woman walking along a lively city street, the careful cracking of a soft-boiled egg, or the protracted, faintly absurd ordeal of pulling a massive automobile into a narrow carport.

Yet the film never feels like “Slow Cinema,” or the kind of calculatingly bland realism that attempts to de-romanticize a remembered time and place. Roma is gloriously alive, every square inch of its frame bursting with texture and activity. Despite its down-to-earth character, the film has justifiably drawn comparisons to the more heightened and darkly ironic works of Federico Fellini, especially his masterworks La Dolce Vita (1960) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). One can see the resemblance, not just superficially in the film’s evocative black-and-white photography but also in its canny eye for the delights, travails, and absurdities of ordinary life, as well as its taste for left-field flourishes. An inexplicable background set piece involving a human-cannonball stunt at a political rally feels like something inadvertently left out of Fellini’s La Strada (1954) or that director’s own semi-autobiographical feature, Amarcord (1973).

However, the filmmaker who also leaps to mind is Jacques Tati, and specifically the French director’s comic masterpiece Playtime (1967). While Roma replaces that film’s droll satirization of modern life with kitchen-sink realism, Cuarón’s feature is similarly abuzz with energy, its every frame a dizzying mini-masterpiece of dense composition and balletic choreography. Whether observing Cleo as she silently goes about her morning laundry routine or following a lively Christmas party at a hacienda, Cuarón – who here assumes the roles of both director and cinematographer – turns every shot into a silvery Renaissance painting, coaxing the eye this way and that in search of little visual discoveries. However, unlike, say, the dollhouse fussiness of Wes Anderson’s works, or even the long-take showstopper set pieces in Cuarón’s own Children of Men (2006), Roma never emits a telltale whiff of exertion or orchestration. Much like Fellini at his best, Cuarón displays a virtuosic elegance here that is gobsmacking in hindsight; similar to La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ (1963), Roma never looks like work. It looks like the splendor, heartbreak, and strange madness of life itself.

For all its self-assured lavishness, Roma is a multi-pronged but relatively straightforward film at bottom: a nostalgic celebration of a particular time and place; a revisionist mash note to a marginalized woman who was central to Cuarón’s young life; and an illustration of the ways that the personal and the political are inextricably co-mingled. The paired dramatic foci of the film’s story are the disintegration of Sofia’s marriage and Cleo’s unplanned pregnancy, tribulations that unfold roughly in parallel. On paper, there is a certain telenovela soapiness to these events, but Roma’s approach is too sweeping and digressive for the film to be characterized as a straight melodrama.

The feature doesn’t have a succinct plot so much as a sour through-line: the selfishness and cruel indifference of men. Antonio is engaged in the slow-motion abandonment of his family – Cleo discovers at one point that his supposed conferences in Quebec are a cover for visits to his mistress – an unwelcome change that the family members all react to with differing levels of denial, anger, and anguish. Meanwhile, Cleo’s cocky, martial-arts-enthusiast boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), bolts at the first mention of their impending baby, excusing himself to the restroom during a movie and then never returning. This unceremonious desertion upends Cleo’s solid routine, infusing it with a queasy uncertainty about the future.

Although Cleo is nervous about revealing her pregnancy to her employer, the family reacts to the news with genuine joy and kindness. Perhaps prompted in part by her own troubles, Sofia makes Cleo’s imminent motherhood a personal priority, sending the housekeeper to one of Mexico City’s best obstetricians and allowing her to pick out a crib at an upmarket department store. It’s during this shopping trip that Cleo and Teresa run headlong into the June 10, 1971, Corpus Christi massacre, in which student demonstrators were brutally attacked by a black-operations army group, Los Halcones. This sequence – a staggering and harrowing feat of historical re-creation punctuated by a personal tragedy for the film’s characters – is the most conspicuous instance in which blood-spattered reality spills over into Roma’s generally heartfelt conjuration of the period’s prosaic rhythms. It’s undeniably riveting to watch, but also one of the few occasions in which the film’s commitment to period verisimilitude shades into Forrest Gump-ian implausibility.

Cuarón is on much surer footing when he quietly illustrates the innumerable ways that Mexico’s social and political inequalities inform character dynamics. In this, the director’s decision to center his feature on Cleo rather than one of the non-indigenous adults or children is essential. Like many live-in domestic workers, Cleo and Adela are at once an integral part of the family’s daily life and pointedly separate from it, their outsider position demarcated by their ethnicity, class, and employee status. Cuarón emphasizes these divisions repeatedly, without ever explicitly referring to them in the film’s dialogue. To wit: Cleo and Adela are obliged to sleep in a tiny, upper-floor apartment across the courtyard from the main house. After sunset, the women keep the lights in their little flat switched off, lest they invite a scolding from Sofia for “wasting” electricity. This sort of disdainful highhandedness seems to be the exception rather than the rule, but the little indignities are always there, subtly reminding Cleo of her place in the household. In one fantastic scene in which the family has gathered to watch television, Cuarón’s crisp attentiveness to the housekeeper’s movements around the room underlines her simultaneous intimacy with and separation from them.

The unassuming miracle of Roma is that this systemic subtext is subordinate to but never completely banished by the film’s rich sentimentality and dry humor. The shadow is always there, at once sharpening and complicating an otherwise humane, loving portrayal of the Mexico of Cuarón’s youth. The filmmaker achieves this in part by privileging a different personal-is-political dimension to the story: namely, the bond between women of all stations who have been wronged by men. Resigned to the reality of her abandonment, a mascara-streaked Sofia sniffles bitterly to Cleo, “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”

This miserable notion is self-evidently false, of course: Cleo and Sofia have each other, and they have the children whom they both adore. The sublime grace of Cuarón’s feature lies in how he permits the connection between Cleo and the family to flourish and mature unironically, all without neglecting its thornier racial and class aspects. In the film’s final act, that connection crystallizes during a weekend holiday at a seaside town, a trip in which the last traces of Antonio are figuratively washed away. Said holiday concludes with a terrifying incident that establishes a new emotional intimacy between Cleo and the family, and highlights her status as a cherished member of the household.

Besides Cuarón’s own stunning ambition and cinematic talents, Roma rests to a great extent on the shoulders of newcomer Aparicio, whose sincerity, serenity, and vulnerability are integral to the film’s down-to-earth humanity. Cleo is a figure who seems at once earthy and celestial, her centrality to the story never in question, notwithstanding the maelstrom of city bustle and historical destiny that swirls around her. She is unmistakably the Protagonist in a cast of thousands, even when she is passive – such as mischievously playing dead in the afternoon sun with her youngest charge, or simply standing agog in her nightgown as men rush to extinguish a furiously burning plantation orchard.

Even in 2018, there is a certain radicalness intrinsic in placing a dark-skinned, working-class Mixtec woman at the center of her own story. What makes Cuarón and Aparicio’s approach so fascinating is how carefully they balance the character’s messy humanity with her idealized aspects. On the one hand, for example, the film shows Cleo gazing appreciatively at Fermín’s naked body as he poses for her amusement. (How often are indigenous female characters allowed to simply acknowledge that they have libidos?) On the other, Cuarón crafts a vibrating moment of magical realism in which Cleo – and only Cleo – is capable of assuming a yogic pose that an army of martial-arts students find impossible. Who is Cleo? A victim? A hero? A worker? A flesh-and-blood woman? An unassuming Virgil in this cinematic time machine? A guardian angel plucked from Cuarón’s memories? Yes – all these things, and many others. Like every person living or dead, she’s the star of her own story, and all the world's a stage.

Ultimately, what makes Roma so enthralling is how grand and majestic it feels, even in its smallest moments and simplest gestures. It’s a film that captures the vibrant pulsations of life in all its myriad iterations: in a child’s playroom; during a freak hailstorm; in a hospital emergency room; under the rooftop clotheslines; in a basement cantina; in the midst of a riot; in a tranquil courtyard at dawn, where the parakeets chirp and Cleo’s day begins. In Roma, Cuarón has crafted not just a great feat of cinema, but a work that’s destined to be savored and pored over for decades to come. “Let’s talk soon,” Cleo remarks to Adela after returning from her beach holiday with the family. “I have so much to tell you.” Roma has so much to tell us, it’s practically overflowing.

Rating: A

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt