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 – 8½, 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.