By Spencer Davis. While I introduced my 2018 Year In Music picks by contemplating why today’s songwriters have mostly failed to tap into the political pulse of this extraordinary moment in history in which we live, I can’t at all say the same thing about the world of film. From the racial divisions tearing apart our elections and our borders to the tectonic shifts still shaking our long-stagnant perceptions of the treatment of women, this year’s best movies seemed utterly oxygenated by the hashtag social movements that have dominated our discourse—and they burned all the more brightly for it. Of course, hovering over all of this has been the constant specter of the Trump Administration, and it should be no surprise that liberal Hollywood chose to challenge this presidency—and everything it means for the life of our democracy—head-on. No film better captured the complete insanity of living in the shadow of rising authoritarianism than The Death Of Stalin.
1. The Death Of Stalin
2. A Star Is Born
4. Eighth Grade
5. Hearts Beat Loud
6. Leave No Trace
10. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
12. The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society
15. Support The Girls
If you’ve watched his work on HBO’s Veep, you know how sharply writer/director Armando Iannucci’s political satire can cut. But with current events managing to make Veep look less outlandish than actual reality, the only way to up the ante was to go back in time. The Death Of Stalin takes the darkest of topics—the internal power struggle in the USSR following the death of the longtime Soviet dictator—and turns it into a laugh-out-loud meta-commentary on the petty insecurities and unholy selfishness of those who seek power. Knowing well that his brand of rapid-fire, obscenity-laced dialogue would turn into an indecipherable clusterfuck under Russian accents, Iannucci wisely dispenses with that little bit of accuracy and allows his mostly-British cast to work with the Queen’s English. What transpires is an escalating parade of absurdity, with fearsome historical figures like Khrushchev (a hilariously foul-mouthed Steve Buscemi), Malenkov (the hapless Jeffrey Tambor), Beria (an icy Simon Russell Beale), and Molotov (Monty Python’s Michael Palin) plotting and backstabbing while trying to outdo each other to profess their party loyalty the loudest. And of course, in the wake of Stalin’s purges, each of them knows that the loser in this game of thrones faces likely death—making this an especially black comedy.
Much like Veep, though, the brilliance of the movie is in watching just how breathtakingly amateurish these political schemers are—illustrating in biting fashion how stupidity and incompetence will inevitably metastasize within a government that is immune from accountability. The lesson truly hits home when a scene-stealing Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter‘s Lucius Malfoy) walks in as Red Army general Georgy Zhukov, WWII hero and savior of his homeland, and terrifies the living shit out of this cast of dilettantes with his ruthless efficiency and give-zero-fucks attitude. It’s a brilliant maneuver by Iannucci, crystallizing the no-win situation that we the people face under authoritarianism: a choice between leaders of mindless ineptitude or expert cruelty. It’s a choice that, in today’s environment, no longer seems so far-fetched.
After months in the limelight, I’m not exactly revealing a huge secret in singing the praises of A Star Is Born. But thanks to two Oscar-worthy performances from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, a killer soundtrack, and a timely message about the, ahem, shallowness of celebrity in the internet age, it’s a film that just can’t be oversold. Your mind could explode with all of the ironies that this movie shows us about fame, especially when viewed in parallel with the real life career of its star. Ally’s version of “selling out” registers at about a 2 compared with the 10 that Lady Gaga courted when she hit the scene in 2008—and yet Lady Gaga is here in this movie now by virtue of the fact that she was something way deeper than just another piece of shiny manufactured pop packaging, forging herself into a once-in-a-generation combination of raw musical talent and social provocateur. She’s living proof that Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine was wrong; you can embrace all of the dirty trappings of commercial superstardom while still having something vital to say. Even so, this is a movie continues to burn in your memory long after you’ve left the theater. And if it ends up sweeping the Oscars come February, we can only hope that its two stars fare better than their characters—because they truly deserve it.
Their biggest competition on Oscar night may come from Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Perhaps our most talented working director, Cuaron breaks his own ceiling with this partly-autobiographical portrait of life in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma district in the early 70s. But rather than making this all about himself, he instead turns his lens toward the struggles of the women who raised him: a working-class nanny enduring an unwanted pregnancy and a life of serfdom, and his upper-class mother, who has been abandoned by her husband. With that foundation, the script obviously has a lot to say about classism in a broken country, but Cuaron doesn’t reduce his characters to one-dimensional stand-ins for their identity groups. The nanny, while sometimes scolded unfairly or viewed as a lesser human being by some, is still treated with compassion by her employers and comes to be seen as part of the family. The mother figure, while fixated upon her own troubles, isn’t a wholly clueless creature of privilege, and she does what she can to help. The performances are brutally perfect, but the real star here is Cuaron’s cinematic eye; every black-and-white shot is so exquisitely constructed that you think these can’t possibly be images of real life. Sweeping across wide-angled vistas of roaming chaos, he paints a mural of the sheer breadth of life that is both epic and intimate in what it captures.
If your eighth grade experience was anything like mine, you might not be eager to relive it. Thankfully, Eighth Grade handles the topic with more maturity and grace than real life—and may just help viewers see their own awkward adolescent experiences in a new light. Elsie Fisher’s dumbfounding performance deserves much of the credit; her body language and nervous, meandering delivery capture all of the desperation, terror, and shame that flood every minute of a young teenage girl’s life. As adults, we can read between the lines and see that every word is a transparent reach for approval—and yet there’s so much for us to learn, too, about the compound challenges that today’s teenagers face, navigating not just the hell of the middle school hallway but also a never-ending maze of social media apps and status updates that consume not their every waking moment. It can make for a squirmy viewing experience, but the script smartly makes use of its supporting cast to let us see the light at the end of Kayla’s terrible tunnel—from a father who awkwardly pines for her approval (Kayla of course obliviously shoots him down with all of the same disinterested cruelty that she suffers from her peers) to a high school mentor who gives her a window into a life of acceptance that lies just around the corner. What makes Eighth Grade work so well is that we know, even if Kayla can’t yet, that it really does get better.
We’ve all become so jaded and weary that the idea of a feel-good movie might seem quaint. But we need them now more than ever. There was no better one in 2018 than Hearts Beat Loud, a gem of a dramedy about a Brooklyn record store owner who tries to start an indie rock band with his teenage daughter. Nick Offerman (Parks And Recreation) stars, defying his reputation as a gruff manly-man with a performance that is vulnerable and shaded with middle-aged regret, and actress/musician Kiersey Clemons absolutely kills it as his daughter, in what should herald her as a major Hollywood talent to come. Now a lot of movies about music do a pretty half-assed job of the music part, but not this one. The songs are catchy as hell and sound authentically “indie,” and the songwriting scenes, while unrealistically concise as you might expect, are fascinating to watch. You might think you’re watching yet another John Carney film (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street), and while nobody can do movies about music quite like him, director Brett Haley comes real damn close with this one. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll most definitely bob your head.
If you were one of the lucky few who got to see 2016’s superb Captain Fantastic, then Leave No Trace might seem at first like it’s simply retreading the same path. It’s not. The two films share a concept—a father trying to raise children off-the-grid in the wilderness—but the execution couldn’t be more different. Ben Foster’s father here is no hippie, but a wounded, nearly silent war veteran suffering from PTSD. And his daughter (played by newcomer Thomasin McKenzie in a breakthrough turn) is no precocious overachiever, but a passive, near robotic ghost of a girl who is clearly stunted by this experience. As they are forced to move back into the real world, the two must cope with the possibility that their lives are headed down different paths, and McKenzie’s calm resilience as she grapples with being among other people again—and learns to find her own voice in this unique brand of family—is a sight to behold. It’s a movie that makes you question your most basic assumptions about parenting, about individuality, about society, and like its protagonists, there’s an incredible punch behind its quiet exterior.
As a white male, I’m somewhat glad I didn’t see BlacKkKlansman in the theater, because it would have been a supremely awkward viewing experience. But of course it’s supposed to be. Despite the 70s setting, the timing couldn’t be more current, and Spike Lee uses the occasion to thoughtfully explore issues from #BlackLivesMatter to Charlottesville in ways that might defy your expectations. Offering no comforting answers and refusing to take the easy road with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, Lee provokes questions about whether America’s self-perceptions about racial progress are deeply delusional; about whether the black community, despite legitimate grievances, goes too far in vilifying police; about whether police are doing enough to police themselves; and of course, about whether we are now living in the once-unimaginable situation of having a white supremacist in the White House. The cries of “America First” are not subtle, nor is the film’s epilogue, employing real-life news footage from today. But subtlety was never Lee’s strong suit, and his best films always leap boldly into territory where no other filmmaker would have the balls to tread. BlacKkKlansman just might be his balliest work since Do The Right Thing, and we sorely need that right now.
Something else we sorely need right now: Nicolas Cage. And yes, you’re talking to someone who had a Nic Cage-themed Housewarming Party / Bad Movie Night this year, but let’s be honest, the man is a National Treasure. (Stop me. Stop me now.) After years of decline, Cage was back in peak form in Mandy a bloody, batshit crazy mess of a movie that defies categorization. Like a bad nightmare that just won’t end, the movie takes its time getting there—but the payoff is more than worth it. The setup is simple: when Cage’s girlfriend, the titular Mandy, is kidnapped and murdered by a hippie religious cult, Cage goes on a cocaine-fueled killing spree with a self-forged battle axe, a slew of guns, and as you’ve probably heard by now, a chainsaw. Director Panos Cosmatos ratchets up the weird with a vintage 80s aesthetic drawn from heavy metal record covers and cheap fantasy paperbacks, a color palette that recalls the surrealism of the original Suspiria, and crazy little touches like a demon motorcycle cult clad in black armor, faces that meld into one another, and … Nic Cage chugging vodka in his whitey-tighties and screaming like a madman. So, yeah, don’t expect anything here to make sense. Just submit to the insanity and enjoy a movie like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
On the complete other side of the spectrum is Puzzle, a measured but endearing character piece about the joys of doing jigsaw puzzles. No, seriously. Kelly MacDonald (Boardwalk Empire, Trainspotting) stars as a New Jersey housewife whose entire identity seems wrapped up in serving the men in her life: a self-absorbed husband and two grown kids with no direction in their lives. But when she receives a puzzle as a birthday gift, she learns she’s a prodigy at it, and finds herself sneaking off to NYC to practice for a partners’ puzzle tournament with a lonely inventor (Life Of Pi’s Irrfan Khan). In puzzles, they find solace for a life that never quite seems to fit together the way we want it. It’s a movie that’s not just about the psychological weight imposed upon the typical American housewife—but also the pains of being an intelligent introvert without a receptive outlet for one’s thoughts. Despite decades of great work, MacDonald has never had a starring role until now, and she nails it. Contemplative and aching, Puzzle has complexity that goes far deeper than its setup.
At this point, either you get the Coen Brothers or you don’t. For those in on the joke, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs expands the boundaries of their signature brand of gallows humor with six vignettes of death and irony in the Old West. The Coens’ visual flair has never been better, painting rich tapestries out of the wide Western expanses that capture a sublime beauty beckoning just behind every moment of impending doom. In a way, the movie has less in common with earlier Coen westerns like True Grit or No Country For Old Men, borrowing instead from the bitter satire of Miller’s Crossing and, more notably, the Coens’ rich knowledge of Hollywood history (seen most recently in Hail, Caesar!). Skewering everything from Stagecoach to the 50s white-hat westerns of old, Buster Scruggs plays like a whirlwind tour of all the ways movie history has glorified and distorted the Old West—winking knowingly at how both Hollywood and Americans in general build myths to romanticize our pasts.
Sometimes you just need a a good, dumb comedy, and Tag was the best I’ve seen in years. Based on a true story about a group of childhood friends who still have a game of tag going in their 40s, the premise seems idiotic—but it’s just the foundation for a funny, wistful movie about the importance of carrying on friendships and holding onto the simpler joys of youth even as you age. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” is the mantra of these man-children. And while that kind of cloying sentiment could have easily dragged on like an SNL sketch that beats the same tired joke into the ground, it doesn’t, thanks to an incredibly talented comedic cast that includes Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Isla Fisher, Hannibal Buress, and Jake Johnson. Smarter than it has a right to be, Tag reliably brings the laughs. And though the title should have been a tipoff, the biggest surprise is that it’s actually quite … touching?
Those of you who are still mourning the loss of Downton Abbey (and who can’t wait for 2019’s movie version) need look no further than Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society. Starring no fewer than four Downton alums (Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode, and Penelope Wilton), Guernsey tells the story of a young author who is drawn to a small island off the coast of Britain still recovering from the Nazi occupation. There, she befriends a book club that was founded as a cover to evade the strict assembly rules of the Nazis, works to uncover the mystery of a woman still missing after the war’s end, and wrestles with a budding love triangle. While that sounds like a lot of plot, the real draws here are the stunning British setting and the same nostalgic, period-piece charms that made viewers swoon for Downton. Like a warm bath in masterpiece theater, it’s comfort food for those who just can’t get enough England in their lives.
The darkly hilarious Thoroughbreds plays like Heathers reimagined by Hitchcock for the country club set. Featuring budding starlets Olivia Cooke (Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, Bates Motel) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split), it’s about a bluntly sociopathic teenage girl who befriends a naive prep school overachiever and convinces her to murder her cruel stepfather. Cooke is hilarious, saying out loud all of the things that most of us only think to ourselves, and Taylor-Joy is even better, playing both a wannabe murderer and a victim of sorts at the same time. It also features the last role of Anton Yelchin as a drug dealer drawn into their devious web. Totally messed up but all the more intriguing for it, Thoroughbreds takes twisted into delightfully fresh territory.
We close with two movies that brought ingenious new perspectives to the lives of women. You can practically sense the sarcasm in the title, Damsel, but the delivery is no less satisfying for it. Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson star, with Pattinson on a quest across the old West to rescue a woman who needs no rescuing from anyone. The film starts conventionally, but its quirky humor gradually builts into a WTF switcheroo that upends every notion you’ve ever had about a western. Wasikowska brings a sad and weary strength to her role, her voice echoing the inner thoughts of every woman who’s ever been tired of enduring a never-ending stream of male neediness—which is to say, every woman. And Pattinson threads the needle in a difficult role that demands that we both loathe and pity his oblivious, entitled romantic streak. Don’t expect a shoot-em-up here, but definitely take this one for a ride.
Finally, when a movie about a Hooters-style breastaurant ends up on the top ten lists for a slew of female critics, you have to pay attention. Support The Girls, with a clever double-entendre of a title and a script that takes seriously the trials and tribulations of a group of women who get paid to be marginalized, earns of all that praise and then some. The jokes are often at the expense of the pathetic clientele rather than the waitresses, but the movie is only a partly a comedy; Regina Hall beings an exhausted gravity to her role as the restaurant’s manager and mother figure, working her ass off through a typical day to take care of her staff while trying to keep her sanity. In a year in which the treatment of women hung over everything, Support The Girls is both a call to action and a vivid illustration of just how far we have yet to come.
Black Panther / Avengers: Infinity War / Annihilation / Hereditary / A Quiet Place / Beirut / Journey’s End / The Guardians / Juliet, Naked / You Were Never Really Here / Galveston / Lean On Pete / Private Life / Colette / The Christmas Chronicles