In 2018, I spent a lot of time at the movies.
The singular escape offered by a giant screen in a dark room full of strangers has always been my favorite coping mechanism.
I’ve gotten better at tuning out the noise in my own living room, too. Many of the films I streamed at home this past year compelled me to put my phone down (for, like, several minutes) and contemplate challenging things.
My partner and I have fallen even more in love by watching films together and relating our creative energies to them. My friendships have been solidified and strengthened through the shared contextual experience of films during this particular moment in history.
Every person I know is nurturing at least a tiny bit of chaos and hoping that some of it will eventually start to make sense. We all tell ourselves stories, and films are simply curated manifestations of those stories artfully constructed for mass consumption.
In no particular order, here are my ten favorite films I saw in 2018 followed by some notable mentions and closing thoughts. If you’re reading this, I hope the year in which you find yourself is a happy and hopeful one.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel is equal parts achingly romantic and quietly tragic. The film’s score, cinematography, performances, and story structure celebrate the decidedly unshakable love shared by its two leads while reinforcing the backdrop of injustice designed to stand in their way.
Jenkins harnesses his great talents as a cinematic storyteller to move us with little more than color, sound, and audible recreations of Baldwin’s beautifully written words. This film feels like magic in a bottle.
Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s sweeping film starts and ends with a group of people connected by survival. They live under unfortunate socioeconomic circumstances in Japan and resort to stealing to make ends meet. The film itself is a stunning, sobering, and empathetically observed meditation on the reality that families and legacies come in many shapes and forms.
The people who nurture us can be chosen. They can also find us, but perhaps this makes it easier for them to discard or disappoint us.
While watching this film, I found myself thinking about how certain acts are viewed as absolutely immoral even though people can be driven to theft, kidnapping and even murder given the right mix of motivators. This film challenges us to imagine radical forgiveness by portraying exactly how some otherwise questionable decisions can seem like inevitable acts of love.
The difficult truths in this film lie in exploring the permanence of familial love and the long-term effects of bonds formed during times of desperation. How we choose to take care of one another is an eternally relevant theme and one that makes this story especially memorable.
Lee Chang-dong’s cinematic adaptation of Murakami’s short story is haunting, transfixing, and paced in a way that makes you hyperaware of your own dormant capacity to become existentially unhinged.
Steven Yeun’s performance is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. He gets to stretch his muscles through dialogue, glances, and body movements that construe a truly mysterious persona. He comes in as an outsider in relation to the two other main characters (played by Yoo Ah-in and a particularly great Jeon Jong-seo). These two characters meet early in the film and reconnect as people who knew each other as children. An intimacy builds between them that is then threatened, but not exclusively by this mysterious outside presence.
What drives the action in this film is the entitlement associated with finding and stubbornly clinging to one’s supposed place in society. This often manifests as men desiring and demanding certain identities and roles in the women they encounter. It also manifests when men decide to perpetuate and fall back on toxic, lazy ideas about masculinity. It’s not just one but two men that become a danger to the woman caught between them.
Even though there is an explicitly threatening plot that plays out over the course of the film, the deeper struggles its characters face are lonely, internal, and nearly impossible to arrange into sentences that could possibly avert the singular horror that builds and transpires by the film’s closing frame.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
I was completely delighted and inspired by this movie. As someone who grew up wanting to be either a storyboard artist or character designer for a major animation studio, I am always moved in a particular way by true innovation in animated storytelling.
First and foremost, this movie’s screenplay soars. Miles Morales’ contemporary Spidey identity is beautifully developed and enriched by substantial supporting characters and expertly crafted world-building in the first act. The rest of the film introduces not only incredible takes on classic villains (Kathryn Hahn’s Doctor Octopus is a great example) but six incarnations of Spider-people from different dimensions.
The multi-dimensional Spider-ensemble spans several types of animation (anime, Chuck Jones-esque slapstick, homages to film noir and graphic novels, etc.) and an impressive cast of voice actors. Every character gets space to develop, their own climactic moments during action scenes, jokes that feel lived-in, and motivations that go far beyond simply stopping the villain-of-the-week.
The various styles of animation somehow inhabit each frame harmoniously and even enhance one another. The emotional arcs of our main Spidey and his supporting Spideys are all compelling and genuinely moving. This movie really has all the things you go to the movies to experience, which is a particularly impressive feat given that Spider-Man is no stranger to the big screen.
Elsie Fisher is masterful as the star of Bo Burnham’s beautiful coming-of-age film. I love when filmmakers take the inner lives of young people seriously. This film centers Fisher’s character Kayla in a way that reinforces teenage anxiety as all-consuming. This is true to life and increasingly challenging given that we’ve all adopted rituals centered on documenting our movements and feelings online.
We watch Kayla watch other people watching her. We see her construct identities (shared via her social media profiles and a YouTube channel) that will hopefully make sense and earn her acceptance among people that seem dishearteningly elusive and predisposed to not liking her. She counters society’s subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to look and behave a certain way. She also counters the unfair and invasive advances of boys who are socialized to think the opposite of what she does in terms of self-worth.
The film feels like a project aimed at salvaging a girl’s self-esteem. It looks directly at the matter-of-fact ugliness in how the world conditions young women (and young people as a whole), particularly in this tech-infused cultural moment. It also depicts how young people can and do confront issues such as grief, isolation, anger, and impulse control. It shows them at their most vulnerable in ways a camera lens typically doesn’t stay to see.
The documentary-style filmmaking and unique soundtrack are not simply flourishes but deliberate touches that serve a somewhat stylized but ultimately truth-seeking perspective.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS
We don’t often see stories about women in the service industry presented on film with an auteur’s attentive and stylistic touches, but this one is perhaps the prime contemporary example. It’s completely immersive, hilarious, and appropriately tragic. It also pulls no punches with regard to critiquing the roles women are asked to perform under a patriarchal capitalist societal structure.
Since the film focuses on women’s individual complexities, there are several moments so human and free of the cues we’re accustomed to in cinema that you truly start to move with and root for these characters.
Regina Hall is mind-bogglingly good as the person holding everything together at a Texas off-the-intestate restaurant meant to conjure something like Hooters. This is the workplace setting in which this satirical and procedural narrative is mostly set. The film isn’t about the day-to-day grind of running a restaurant, but rather the emotional toll it can take. Hall conveys the impossible burdens of her character’s existence with every glance and facial expression.
The vignettes of the story involve our protagonist trying to save her marriage, help a victim of domestic abuse, reach out to an undocumented employee working in the kitchen who needs to feed his family, and deal with a constant barrage of harassment from her employer and the male customers entering her workplace. The film structures these vignettes as an essay with an emotional appeal at its core. Ultimately, that appeal is to see and fight for everyone’s humanity even when the “rules” seem to dictate otherwise.
I AM NOT A WITCH
Rungano Nyoni’s stunning, poignant, and visually rich film follows a young girl named Shula who is banished to live among a camp of traveling witches in present-day Zambia. This was a 2017 British release I was lucky to see in Austin this past year thanks to the Austin Film Society. I will be thinking about and revisiting it for a long time.
The story plays out like a dark fairy-tale whose stakes are all too real. Labeling women as witches allows patriarchal and systemic oppression to run rampant. Awful yet familiar men dictate the worth of these women and instill a fear in them that they will always be rejected from society outside of the minimal terms they are offered under this current system of rule. Labels and setting aside, this film is a sadly relatable parable of how women’s lives play out across many spheres of human society today.
Shula’s anguish is inherently a part of her coming of age. She accepts a lower station in life almost as a fact and finds both camaraderie and hostility among the older women who become her mentors (other witches themselves). The women are literally connected by ribbons and understand that they will turn into animals if they sever that connection with their newly assigned community. The witches travel together, work together, and survive together.
One impressive aspect of Nyoni’s direction is how effortlessly it incorporates historical drama, sharp satire, genuine slapstick comedy, and elements of fantasy. This film is special, extremely relevant to the entire history of humankind, and painstakingly rendered to make you feel Shula’s every emotion.
Steve McQueen’s latest release is singular, stylish, and structured to center the women in its ensemble. It establishes a close proximity to violence for anyone caught in the crosshairs of the criminal enterprises running a dark incarnation of real-life Chicago. It’s partly a heist film and partly a story about the consequences for women connected to dangerous, reckless men.
Narratives about corruption, infidelity, chosen families, and betrayals of trust form the backbone of what it ultimately a completely thrilling piece. Gillian Flynn’s touches are evident every time we see women concerned primarily for their autonomy and survival. Desperation, at its core, knows no gender and maintains no double-standard. Films about difficult situations with lethal consequences don’t necessarily have to default to very bad men (even though the world is full of them).
Sweeping crime thrillers were once the domain of men like the character Colin Farrell plays in this (a crooked politician faced with maintaining a powerful dynasty). Heroes typically look like the ragtag, seemingly well-intentioned character Liam Neeson plays. Typically, stories begin and end with these men and their desires. Seeing Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo step into roles where their characters’ needs drive the action is a thrill in itself. Seeing actors like Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, and Carrie Coon not only fill out a great ensemble but find their own showcase moments feels like watching a new group of artists tell a new kind of story in familiar territory.
Alex Garland (the writer and director of this film) wants to take us into the abyss. Natalie Portman leads a great cast (including Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez) in this science-fiction/horror hybrid that admirably embraces a compelling kind of ambiguity.
The characters’ motivations and story beats can be easily digested. A few people are journeying into an ever-expanding area called the “shimmer” to solve its mysteries and hopefully halt its expansion. The shimmer came into being when a meteor collided with a desolate area of our planet.
Overall, the film is a well-paced and satisfying watch with some of the conventional payoffs you’d expect from this kind of story. For example, there’s a connection between two people (Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac) that serves as a catalyst for our protagonist to enter the shimmer. The story between these two people bookends the more simplistic story at the surface. The deeper elements, however, become messier and more compelling.
There is a sequence set in a lighthouse toward the end of this film that solidifies questions but not answers. Is an alien entity poised to be a threat before or after coming into contact with human beings? Are we the things that inspire malicious desire in otherwise neutral forces from the outer reaches of space? Are we our own worst enemies? Are we doomed with every movement we make to more definitely hold ourselves prisoner? These quandaries all arrive at high speed during a visually striking and emotionally charged scene. The human body itself becomes little more than a vessel through which our existence is measured.
Much like Alex Garland’s SUNSHINE and EX MACHINA, this film will likely become more resonant as what was formerly exclusive to science-fiction stories shapes our reality as human beings. The shimmer could be read as a metaphor for environmental crisis, systemically induced suffering, income inequality, or simply a cultural divide. The idea of a foreign entity posing a threat but only because it’s invaded and analyzed is one that could serve as a critical text for literally everything humans have ever done to either conquer or survive.
TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE
Susan Johnson’s film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA book was a true phenomenon from the moment it dropped on Netflix. The weekend of its release was unmissable if you were anywhere near Twitter or the internet in general. Once people latched onto the central romance between the characters played by Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, a wealth of memes and declarations of fandom followed.
I found myself moved by Condor’s performance and the complexity of Lara Jean (the film’s protagonist). She is emotionally sensitive with regard to her two sisters’ desires and her father’s good intentions, hyperaware of her own struggles as she grieves her mother, and consciously struggling to find out exactly what she wants from a life that she has protectively made quite small (and therefore predictable). She is also a Korean-American character being played by a Vietnamese-American actress, which are both notably refreshing within the genre of on-screen romance.
Lara Jean writes to process her feelings, including romantic ones harbored for her sister’s former boyfriend and a few other people she has encountered throughout her life (one of which is Centineo’s character Peter, who becomes the film’s central love interest). These written feelings are documented in letters she never intends to send. One day, her younger sister sends them out to their formerly imaginary recipients. This launches what is an excellent and completely charming rom-com.
I included this film on my list because, in addition to its focus on the love between two young people of color, it demonstrates that people of all ages grapple with things like love, grief, and anger. The dialogue, music choices, cinematography, and emotional set pieces are more than worthy of inclusion among this year’s film-related achievements.
My only qualm may be that Jenny Han’s perspective seems to subtly center whiteness and a few stereotypical portrayals common in rom-coms (for example, the conveniently positioned gay best friend immediately available to our heteronormative female protagonist). The boys Lara Jean has loved before are shown to be overwhelmingly white and conventional, but I don’t say that as a callout for this movie as much as a critique of how romances are generally constructed on screen. A cushion of white-centric visual cues may still be frustratingly “required” to get projects like this one produced in the first place. Here’s hoping the more concrete strengths of stories and films like this can increasingly stand on their own.
More Notable 2018 Films
2. WE THE ANIMALS
3. THE FAVOURITE
7. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
8. PRIVATE LIFE
9. A SIMPLE FAVOR
11. BLACK PANTHER
12. CRAZY RICH ASIANS
13. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
17. GAME NIGHT
19. MINDING THE GAP
22. LEAVE NO TRACE
23. HEARTS BEAT LOUD
25. RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
26. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
28. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT
Closing Thoughts / Onward
In a lot of ways, 2018 put my heart back together. I hosted an art show, moved in with my partner, became a more present companion to my dog, and found my way back to my creativity.
Writing about these films has reacquainted me with the intensity of my feelings surrounding art. I want to embrace my sensitivity as a creative gateway as opposed to a hurdle. In general, I want to be kinder to all sides of myself in 2019. I hope you’re able to do the same.