Love, 2018

2018 may be the year studios caught up with indie filmmakers.

We saw the first major studio film featuring an LGBT protagonist as the lead in Love, Simon. The popcorn-friendly MCU brought themes of structural inequality and national guilt to the masses in the global phenomenon Black Panther. Big budget sci-fi went existential horror with Annihilation.

And best of all, these were great movies. In the past few years, it felt like the balance of quality had tipped largely to the independent side (where, to be sure, filmmakers often have a larger degree of creative freedom) but these gutsier, more artistic sensibilities made their way into the studio system as the big players took “risks” on inclusion, social awareness, and complicated themes, and managed to turn out some terrific films.

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“When the sun goes down and the band won’t play, I’ll always remember us this way.”

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in movie theaters this year, I’m a little sad why I have more time to go there – 2018 also saw the end of FilmStruck, the (now, apparently) too-good-to-be-true streaming service offered by the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. It was a tremendous digital cinema resource, enabling me to plow through many of the Italian films from Criterion (a personal goal of mine) as well as explore their proactive curation of films. I particularly enjoyed their selections for June 2018 (LGBTQ Pride Month), and discovered some great titles I hadn’t seen like The Watermelon Woman, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant, and introduced me to the wacky world of Derek Jarman. It was a great product while it lasted, and I look forward to the return of the Criterion Channel soon. If it’s anything like FilmStruck was, there’s a lot to look forward to!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a look back at my 2018 in film:

  • 212 movies seen (0.58 per day, up from last year’s run rate of 0.52 per day)
  • First movie seen: The Big Sick (2017)
  • Last movie seen: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

TOP 10 LIST:

  1. A Star is Born – It’s funny that a movie concerning a veteran rocker and a rising pop singer is less about fame and celebrity than it is about love. I saw it three times in seven days, and each time was fully transported and engrossed in this intimate epic. No other movie this year followed the open road of love, in all its beauty and ugliness, quite as poignantly as this one.
  2. Love, SimonLove, Simon is not showy, flashy, or attention-grabbing. It is a well-crafted, heartfelt high school comedy that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Weepy coming-out movies are a dime a dozen, but a quality teen studio movie featuring a gay lead is literally a “first” in 2018. Long after its trailblazing status is an asterisk in history, Love, Simon will continue to be a warm, reassuring movie to visit again and again.
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  3. Avengers: Infinity War – It may be surprising to place this above another MCU entry (which I also love), but Infinity War truly hit all the right notes for me, as both a stand-alone film and elevating established  MCU heroes to their highest stakes and best moments to date. I’m moved to tears by the sacrifices by the Guardians of the Galaxy, feel the lightning adrenaline of Thor brandishing his shiny new ax, and am horrified by the gut-punch ending. This was a massive movie with dozens of stars and sky-high expectations, and they still pulled it off.
  4. Annihilation – I ended up in this cerebral sci-fi as the “plan B” movie of the night, and I’m so glad I did. Possibly the scariest movie of the year, this wholly unsettling journey pits a team of soldiers against alien elements in a battle against time and an unknowable enemy. Alex Garland’s latest is haunting and unforgettable.Annihilation-Movie-2018-Extended-Tv-Spot-Natalie-Portman
  5. Incredibles 2 – Our favorite superhero family is back, in all their mid-century modern glory. The plot and new characters are twisty and occasionally hard to follow, but the ride is a ton of fun and Brad Bird’s intelligent script is endlessly entertaining and quotable. “Done properly, parenting can be a heroic act.”
  6. Black Panther – This cultural phenomenon is possibly the most surprising, though deserving, hit of the year. Its uncomfortable themes of imperialist guilt and the obligations of those more fortunate are captured powerfully by Michael B. Jordan’s ruthless Killmonger, a villain both tragic and despicable. What’s also striking is how comparatively little T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) himself is in it, compared to the impact by Killmonger and the delightful leading ladies of Wakanda: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira, who also steals her scenes in Infinity War), and Shuri (Leticia Wright).
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  7. Hereditary – Another spooky favorite, this (also genuinely horrifying) pick crawls under your skin, lays eggs, and tears you open when you least expect it. Toni Colette is deservedly earning praise for her knockout performance, and Alex Wolff is also noteworthy for his portrayal of her troubled son in this demented family drama.
  8. Mary Poppins Returns – This delightful musical is one of those films where every element, from art direction, costume design, music, all the way to acting and performance, come together so harmoniously it’s easy to take for granted. Arguably more than the original, Mary Poppins Returns sets a clear through-line and each segment cleanly follows that trajectory, delivering memorable moments every step of the way. The finale is a warm reminder of just how magical the movies can be.
  9. Suspiria – The third arthouse horror on the list (can you tell I’m a genre guy?), Suspiria is a big, gutsy, bloody bite into an iconic classic, but spits out an entirely new demon entirely. For its entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime, director Luca Guadagnino casts an unsettling, though surprisingly moving, spell with themes of motherhood, survivor’s guilt, and forgiveness all while trapping us in a Berlin dance academy run by witches. It’s insane on paper, it’s insane to watch, and it’s one of the year’s best.suspiria-dakota-e1538244414570
  10. The Nun – This feels a little goofy to include, but I’ve made my list and checked it twice, and can’t deny how much fun this fifth (!) Conjuring movie is. It’s not particularly scary, but it’s delightfully atmospheric, with more fog, candles, and shadows than you’ll know what to do with. Taissa Farmiga also shines playing against type as a likable character.

Note: There’s a handful of 2018 films still on my watch list, including Roma, Eighth Grade, Green Book, and Vice.

  • Notable Discoveries in 2018:
    • Forty Guns
    • The Gospel According to St. Matthew
    • The Lodger
    • A Matter of Life and Death
    • Maurice
    • Paisan
    • Seduced and Abandoned
    • The Seventh Seal
    • The Young Girls of Rochefort
    • Women in Love
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The Young Girls of Rochefort are also Women in Love!
  • MOST-WATCHED:
    • Coco (4x)
    • Love, Simon (4x)
    • Call Me By Your Name (3x)
    • A Star is Born (2018) (3x)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2018? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

Into the Woods (2014)

Into the Woods, the long-awaited adaptation of the now-classic Sondheim musical, is one of the finest contemporary movie musicals, and arguably the best since the instant classic Chicago (also by director Rob Marshall). Marshall translates an incredibly difficult work from stage to screen, and makes bold, fascinating choices to bring this story to an entirely new medium.

The original Broadway production featured flat, storybook-esque set panels which rose to reveal the dark and prickly woods, but still within mostly the same frame of vision – the focus, of course, less on the realism of a physical set and more on the narrative and raw emotion transpiring onstage. For film, though, a much more literal telling is required, and the flat cottages of the main characters are fleshed out into believable, three-dimensional, sweeping environments.

This more formal, concrete element is where Marshall’s directing chops are really illuminated. The choices he makes, given the sharply different setting, are fascinating in how they subtly convey the story. Within the Baker’s shop, for instance, the shots of the Witch are mostly facing the doorway (the outside world) while the shots of the Baker and his Wife are facing inside; this decision implying the Witch’s role as both the couple’s gateway to the outside world, as well as their obstacle from it (by physically blocking the doorway), told purely through visuals.

The careful planning in constructing each scene makes me eager to revisit this work; with so many engaging character interactions and little moments of power plays and bartering, there is undoubtedly a great deal more to discover within this piece.

Upon immediate viewing, however, it is clear how pitch-perfect the casting choices were. Emily Blunt, in the finest performance I’ve seen her give, is a revelation as the Baker’s Wife, Anna Kendrick plays a genuine heartfelt Cinderella, and Meryl Streep is a captivating, often hilarious Witch. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilariously over-the-top as Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, in a borderline obscene duet of sexual frustration whilst prancing around waterfalls.

Which brings us to an interesting point – Disney’s adaptation of this piece was prematurely criticized for lightening up the original’s darker themes for mass consumption by a more general audience. These fears, in my opinion, were in vain; while children may not pick up on the sexual subtext of the princes’ duet, romantic infidelity, or predatory strangers, these darker ideas certainly come through in the film version. Without spoiling, I truly applaud the changes from the musical to film; the work ends with a different finale song, leaving a very different tone and ultimate effect than the musical does.

This movie marks such an important moment for Disney. The adult themes are not ideas Disney films have really gone into, and certainly not regarding the fairy-tale characters they are so known for. Journeying into such territory, in addition to adapting such a complex, ambitious show, is a fantastic step for the Studios and would be a wonderful sign of things to come. This is truly one of the best movies of the year.

Chicago (2002)

My relationship with Chicago can best be described as dysfunctional. When it was released I was in the 6th grade, and I was absolutely obsessed with it. Part of the appeal was certainly the raunchiness, as it was possibly the dirtiest movie I had seen at that time (sex scenes! garters! loose morals!) but as I get older the shock wears off. (Duh.)

With age and repeat viewings, I also find myself more critical of it. The film’s “protagonist” Roxie Hart becomes less and less likeable and the sound editing rather gimmicky. The choices in directing mesmerized me in my youth, but now I find them rather obvious and dull.

However, while the content is less impressive to me, its style and what the movie represents bring the movie significant more weight and, in my opinion, make it more and more essential. The musical numbers are all very well staged, particularly the unforgettable “Cell Block Tango.” Furthermore, Chicago has the honor of being possibly the only noir movie musical.

Yes, it’s a musical (black) comedy, but there’s no one to root for here; everybody’s got loose morals, and in the end, two murderesses beat the system and become celebrities. What?

Movies like this would never have flown in classical Hollywood, so Chicago is a jewel in the noir crown. The take-home message, essentially, is that we can get away with terrible crimes and that we should stop at nothing to get what we want. It’s the standard Hero’s Journey, but with murder and dishonesty as tools to use to achieve our ends.

While I do think the film runs a bit long, for the most part it is a supremely entertaining movie harkening back to a time when the movies were meant to be fun; the characters are cynical and conniving, but doggone it they’re gonna sing and dance and we’ll all have a good time.

This is a movie where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole, with fantastic musical numbers but a few lagging dialogue scenes in the second hour, but the film has such an important role both in modern noir and in the modern musical where it is undoubtedly an essential viewing for contemporary cinema. “Isn’t it swell?”