Combustible Celluloid

2018: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I almost didn't want to write an introduction this year. For inspiration, I looked back at what I wrote at the end of 2017: "It was a largely miserable year, difficult to find hope every day while slogging through the constantly unbelievable news, and yet there was hope to be had. Good people still showed up to do good things. They helped. They smiled. Good music played. Good books were read. Good food was prepared. And good movies were made and seen." I had hoped that 2018 would improve, but it didn't much. The news — both national and personal — was dire, and it was harder to find hope. But the holidays came around and I saw that hope is not lost. I saw many small acts of kindness, and people to believe in, and — even still — movies to treasure. Here is my list of the best, followed up runners-up, favorite DVDs and Blu-rays, "Guilty Pleasures and Little Treasures," and... the Worst.

- The Top Ten -

1. Roma
What makes Alfonso Cuarón's Roma so good? Its story is a memory piece, the story of a year in a life that has its share of tragedy, horror, beauty, humor, and glory. But Cuarón, who started good and has steadily improved — he equals his earlier masterpiece, Gravity — seems to understand something about cinema, and the way things move, better than most other directors alive. More than simply deciding to tell a story in black-and-white and widescreen, Cuarón seems to be intertwining — and elevating — the concepts of memory and cinema. Roma is so crystalline, so pristine, that it recalls the most artistically advanced movies of history, using its resplendent frames to find an ebb and flow to life and death, dreams and memories, in a way that will be worth exploring again and again.

2. BlacKkKlansman
An unruly mishmash of humor, period detail, based-on-a-true-story romanticism, film criticism, and angry cautionary tale, Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is made by a man in his sixties, but it could easily have come from the same filmmaker in his ferocious twenties. It's an astonishing story, so crazy it must be true, but Lee doesn't allow it, or the other ideas in the film, to become isolated, stuck in the past. He takes this cockamamie thing and makes it an essential movie of its moment.

3. First Reformed
Perhaps sensing some kind of end of the world, Paul Schrader has set aside his forays into sex and violence and gone back to the kinds of transcendental films that fascinated him as a young man, films that achieve a spiritual state through their seeming simplicity. With its tormented priest character, First Reformed makes a companion piece to, and a full circle from, Schrader's legendary screenplay for Taxi Driver, revisiting and re-evaluating those themes, and, at the same time, becoming a film worthy of being displayed alongside it.

4. The Other Side of the Wind
A gift from the movie gods, and a "lost" film that many thought would never see the light of day, Orson Welles's The Other Side of the Wind was completed and officially released in 2018 (it was briefly shown in some theaters, and then debuted, with a shocking lack of fanfare, on Netflix). It's a dense film, in some ways trapped in the mindset of 1976, but in other ways, a good deal more advanced than most modern films. Its struggles with artistic impulse, artistic style, and — dispiritingly, the business of artistry — are still relevant, and deserve to be back in the national discussion. (Note: Morgan Neville's companion documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead is almost essential to fully appreciating Welles's work.)

5. 24 Frames
Another final film from another filmmaker passed away before his time, Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames is a fully experimental film, and a good ways away from the narrative films that first drew me to him, but it's just as beautiful and thoughtful as any of his films. To put it simply, he takes twenty-four of his own great photographs and shoots little films around them, imagining what might have occurred before the snapshot, and after. The segments range from funny and strange to heart-rending, and somehow come together as a kind of mystery of life.

6. Let the Sunshine In
It has been some time since Claire Denis — one of my favorite living filmmakers — delivered a ten best-worthy film, but weirdly, Let the Sunshine In is hardly a typical film from her. It's talky rather than contemplative, and moves in clips and chunks rather than poetically exploring its space. It's almost off-putting at first glance. But by the time that astounding ending comes along, it's pretty easy to see that Denis is still at the top of her game, painting a portrait of a lonely woman and the complicated ways she looks to fill her emptiness. On a side note, Juliette Binoche is also one of the best actors we have in the world today, and, even though she is already an Oscar-winner, it's a shame she is never considered for her more recent, jaw-dropping work.

7. Black Panther
More great superhero films? Last year Logan wormed its way onto my top ten list, usually a forum that's bereft of entertainments, and this year Ryan Coogler's Black Panther became, in terms of impact, the film of the year. There's no question that Coogler, after only his third feature, is exceptionally skilled behind the camera; he manages a heroes-and-villains story that finds interesting gray areas within the formula. But he's also at the forefront of those talking about the black experience. For the first time in over a century, audiences had their very own black superhero, which may seem like an insignificant thing, but for a generation whose eyes were opened a little wider, it's not.

8. You Were Never Really Here
In twenty years, Lynne Ramsay has only made four feature films; I was a great admirer of her first two and despised her third, but here she is, back in top form. You Were Never Really Here is, I think, a modern film noir, a look inside the dark night of a character's — and America's — soul. The story of a career criminal reluctantly taking on a job that winds up changing his entire world is not new, but Ramsay's way of bending the sense of time and space, and her way of creating a mood, like waking from a nightmare, are startling and bracing. This is a movie that gets just how lost we humans can feel.

9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
An uneven, but unfailingly gorgeous, mesmerizing six-part Western anthology, Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs stays with you long after what seems to be a casual viewing. The first segment is the funniest movie of the year, and the second one is also funny, but in a much darker way. Then the stories grow ever darker, dealing in death in an increasingly ethereal, poetic way (by way of Jack London). The longest segment seems rather too short, and the shortest one is just right. The package is, like the book that introduces each of the stories, like a fine, collectable edition, worthy of treasuring.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I confess I had trouble filling this tenth slot, and I tried out a number of titles before I found one that just about fit (see below the long list of runners-up that this year yielded). Other animated films (and other superhero films) were quite good, but Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had a passion and enthusiasm that seems rare in movies today; the makers genuinely cared about this movie, and they did their best to make it a fully-rounded experience, as well as a forward-thinking one. Technically magnificent in so many ways, it feels like a next step in the history of animation, a new high-water mark for future films to live up to.

9 Runners up (in alphabetical order):

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

25 Great Performances

  • Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
  • Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In
  • Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place
  • Steve Buscemi, Lean on Pete
  • John Cho, Searching
  • Toni Collette, Hereditary
  • Steve Coogan, Stan & Ollie
  • Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
  • Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
  • Ben Foster, Leave No Trace
  • Regina Hall, Support the Girls
  • Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade
  • Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
  • Jonah Hill, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
  • Brady Jandreau, The Rider
  • Michel B. Jordan, Black Panther
  • Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
  • Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace
  • John C. Reilly, Stan & Ollie
  • Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed
  • Michael Shannon, What They Had
  • Sissy Spacek, The Old Man & the Gun
  • Alex Wolff, Hereditary

Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases

I no longer review DVDs and Blu-rays with the same regularity that I once did, and there were several worthy releases this year that I did not get a chance to see. This list, while not comprehensive, comprises my favorites of the ones I did see.

Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures

The Year's Worst Films

Thanks for reading! Sending best wishes and prayers for a better 2019! -- JMA

Movies Unlimtied