By Will Mann
The 91st Academy Awards have come and gone, leaving in their wake one of the most unprecedentedly dramatic years in the Academy’s history. And that isn’t even factoring in the fact that Green Book, yes, Green Book won Best Picture in a move that’s already being compared to when the Academy voted on instantly-dated racial dramas like Driving Miss Daisy and Crash for its highest award. A revolutionary year for cinema, one that included an Afro-futurist superhero narrative as its highest grossing movie, was not reflected in the results to the awards. Green Book is like many before it in that it is very transparently Oscar bait, but the changing demographics of the Academy had many (myself included) believing that the winds of change were finally upon Oscar. The last two Best Picture winners, Moonlight and The Shape of Water, were both somewhat radical, different choices in their own right, and there was optimism that the Academy could keep that momentum going forward. Awarding the prize of the evening to Green Book feels like a step back, an Election Night 2016-esque moment that challenges if society, particularly the film world, is as progressive as we’d like to believe.
In fact, this was a confusing Oscar season for me as well. Most years, while we might not have the same overall favorite, my tastes usually align pretty closely with that of the Academy. Usually my favorite movie of the year is a Best Picture nominee, or at least receives some significant or technical nominations. Not the case this year as my favorite movie of the year received no Oscar nominations whatsoever, and it was hard to get enthusiastic for about half the Best Picture nominees. For example, A Star is Born comes once in a generation (quite literally, as many people have noted, because the premise is now on its third remake), and while I enjoyed the film, it’s just not the type of movie I naturally lean towards, and it couldn’t really suspend my disbelief the way it probably should have. It couldn’t win me completely over, but I do have hope for where Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga will go in their respective careers (or maybe in collaboration? Did you see them performing together at the Oscars? Hot damn!) with this hit under their belts. Bohemian Rhapsody is almost entirely anchored by Rami Malek’s admittedly-stellar performance as Freddie Mercury (though I did find him drifting into a voice I dubbed “gay Katherine Hepburn”) while the rest of the film is a series of musical-biopic tropes (including a winking appearance by Mike Myers to assure you that Wayne’s World is still a thing) that already felt dated by the time Walk Hard made fun of them 10 years ago. (As Honest Trailers joked, “Freddie Mercury’s gotta think about his whole life before he gets on stage.”) The previously mentioned Green Book feels like a movie made at least 30 years ago, and the less I say about Vice, Adam McKay’s final dive into the threshold of politically-inspired madness that is as insufferable as and probably worse in execution than you could possibly imagine, the better.
In a year mired by the proposed-and-ultimately aborted Best Popular Film category (a topic which I previously wrote about) and the “who would host” question becoming so compromised that the ceremony went hostless (and made the ceremony a little bit more tolerable, in my humble opinion), this has felt like a different Oscar season that we’ve ever really had before. And while rewarding Spike Lee his first competitive Oscar, or rewarding worthy performances like Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk, or the success of movies like Roma, Black Panther, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in different categories, the results were not, at least, a total wash. But the Oscars, if they continue to act in this sort of rigmarole, anything-goes kind of way, they risk a true crisis of integrity and public confidence. In any other year, Green Book’s win would feel like the ever-present rumblings of the Academy being out-of-touch, another entry to be added to the annals of countless, endless “who should’ve won” debates. This year, it feels like the cherry on top of a very problematic year for the Academy, a sign to the world that despite public intervention being needed to prevent the Academy from making dumb decisions, when it came to one of the few things the public can’t intervene in, the actual voting on Best Picture, the Academy yet again made a dumb decision.
Rather than bemoan the decline of the Academy this year, I have cultivated my own favorites list (plus some short blurbs on movies I found underwhelming, as well as my least-favorite movies of the year). In a year of breakout successes, these are the ones that, at least for me, stood the highest among the rest.
I know I’ve talked about this movie before, but there was no other movie this year that resonated with me so much, and for all the right reasons. It represents a step in the right direction in terms of depictions of adolescence on film, after the lingering stench of movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Fault in Our Stars. It is one of the better (if not the best?) examples of a YA renaissance happening in contemporary film. Bo Burnham has channeled his anxieties into film much more effectively than in his standup. It has the best use of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” in a film ever. (Yeah, that’s right, take that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!) Elsie Fisher has a breakout performance from a young actress that rivals Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional. I can only hope her career becomes as long, storied and successful as those other actresses. Josh Hamilton as the dad in this movie is easily my favorite movie dad of all time. (Yeah, that’s right, take that, Dennis Quaid in The Parent Trap!) His emotional campfire scene is one of the highlights of the movie because his performance captures universal truths about fatherhood. Just like the year in middle school for which it is named, Eighth Grade is brutal and awkward, but also honest, funny, sweet, energetic, contemporary, genuine, endearing, inspiring, and so much more. Very few films have done such justice to adolescence. Its lack of Oscar nominations was an outrage, it being awarded by both the Directors Guild and Writers Guild feels likes vindication. I do not possibly have enough good things to say about this movie. Eighth Grade is my favorite movie of the year. Gucci!
Alfonso Cuaron is one of my favorite currently-working directors, and has proven himself time and time again to be one of our most versatile modern filmmakers. From the bleak dystopia of Children of Men to the celestial tension of Gravity to the nostalgic intimacy of Y Tu Mama Tambien, and yes, even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban displays the full gamut of his directing prowess. His newest movie, Roma (currently on Netflix), is easily his most personal movie. The film follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a housekeeper for a wealthy family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. When Cleo’s personal life becomes complicated, this is only mirrored by the breakdown of the family she takes care of. Cleo is modeled on Cuaron’s childhood housekeeper, and the entire film has a nostalgic feel invoked only by a master working at the top of his game. Every shot seems so deliberate, and so impeccably artistic. Cuaron moves the camera with a sense of intimacy, he lingers when he needs to, but the ultimate idea is depict this story through a very focused lens. Certain scenes haunt and linger far after the film is done, it is a testament to Cuaron’s abilities as a director that these scenes flow so impeccably. Cuaron’s evocative drama is easily one of the best films of the year, and while it may not be my #1, it certainly gets a hard-fought, much-deserved slot as my second-favorite movie of the year.
A Quiet Place
One of the most unexpected surprises of 2018 was John Krasinski’s horror film, A Quiet Place. The film stars Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt as parents fighting to maintain their family in a world that has been taken over by monsters who are sensitive to sound, and will attack anything that makes the slightest noise. In the wrong hands, that premise could be ridiculous, perhaps even schlocky. But with Krasinski’s direction and impeccable performances guiding the way, A Quiet Place is a tight, tense thriller. It is one of the better examples of modern horror of the past couple of year that have already given us a bounty of great horror movies. The characters and their relationships mean something, so when sacrifices have to happen, A Quiet Place is more impactful in helping us understand the weight of the loss. A scene of Blunt’s character giving birth while the monsters stalk the house isn’t just memorable, it’s terrifying. I really like the child actors in this movie, particularly Millicent Simmonds as the deaf oldest-sibling dealing with profound grief and guilt. But in a movie all about sound and hearing, it is truly the auditory aspects of this movie that are most laudable. Hardly ever have I heard an audience in the theater so quiet during a movie screening. I think that is testament to the quality of the movie, and its ability to hold an audience in its grip. Easily the best horror movie of 2018, A Quiet Place is one we’re going to remember and talk about for years to come.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Believe me, I’m just as shocked as you are that one of the best movies of the year, and one of the most impressive action movies in years, is the sixth installment in Tom Cruise’s stalwart spy series. But just like James Bond and the one-two punch of Casino Royale and Skyfall (let’s just all collectively pretend Quantum of Solance and Spectre never happened), it’s now Cruise’s Ethan Hunt’s turn to change with the times. There’s still the same amount of incredible stunts and over-the-top chase scenes, but from beginning to end, I can’t believe just how edge-of-your-seat tense the movie ends up being. But more than that, by resolving several dangling, unresolved threads from previous Mission: Impossible movies, there is a focus on story and character in this installment that carries some significant depth. This movie was simply riveting, and it’s the rare modern blockbuster where you never feel its length. In a year of some really ambitious, different kind of mainstream blockbusters, this one was one of the most surprising and most endearing.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The most pleasant surprise of the year. I knew I was going to love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” stamp was featured in the opening titles, signaling to me that this was going to be a movie by comic book fans for Spider-Man fans. And yet, this movie is much, much more. It’s hilarious, a family-friendly Deadpool (if such a thing could ever exist). Its animation is truly something to behold, a blend that really feels much more like an actual comic book than anything we’ve ever really seen before. But what really endears me to this movie is its sense of heart. Watching young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) struggle to accept his new role as Spider-Man, while at the same time dealing with the emergence of a schlubby, divorced, deadbeat, over-it-all middle-aged Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and an empowered, sly Gwen Stacy-as-Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) from parallel universes. (There’s also an anime-esque character, a noir Spider-Man voiced by Nic Cage, and a talking cartoon pig named Spider-Ham voiced by John Mulaney. The character lineup in this movie rivals anything you’d get in an Avengers team-up.) But on repeat viewings, I’ve noticed that the movie is all about picking one’s self up, even at the absolute lowest of low points. But what causes us to move forward are taking “leaps of faith,” which this film depicts both figuratively and literally in one of the film’s most impressive and moving sequences. Lord & Miller made Jump Street more than just “that thing Johnny Depp was on,” and made Legos cool again. With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, they not only prove that they can bring their sensibilities to even the most beloved of pop-culture institutions, but that they can elevate it to such an extent in the process.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that not only becomes popular and/or acclaimed, but becomes so intrinsically connected to the zeitgeist that it becomes something else entirely. “Movie” doesn’t sum it up so much as “phenomenon.” This year, that movie was Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s Marvel flick gets by on his enthusiasm for the source material, a tactic that served him well with Creed (which is still easily one of my favorite movies of the past few years). He doubles down with this movie, and everything from the production design to the score to the cinematography only serve to reemphasize that. Michael B. Jordan delivers what might be his most iconic role to date as Killmonger, easily one of the better Marvel villains and one of the few who is both political and relatable. 2018 will always be remembered as the year of Black Panther, and rightfully so.
Spike Lee’s late-career renaissance can best summarized by the success of BlacKkKlansman, a testament to Lee’s profound and noted abilities as a filmmaker that pays homage to the styles of the past (most notably Blaxploitation), but also an inventive and innovative film that pushes boundaries in a bold, new direction. The film is an at-times funny, at-others weighty recounting of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He recruits fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver in what might be his best role so far, so take that, Kylo Ren!) to help expose the Klan and prevent further racial violence. They even get to prank David Duke (Topher Grace) in the process. Smartly written, well-acted and made by one of the true masters of modern American filmmaking, BlacKkKlansman is a tour-de-force with an important message that the film makes sure still resonates today.
As comedian Billy Eichner said recently, “Who knew a year ago there would be more gay sex in a movie about Queen Anne than in a movie about Freddie Mercury?” The Favourite is the strange, kinky British monarchial lesbian dramedy you never knew you wanted. There was probably no one more skeptical than me when I walked in, I mostly despise British-period dramas and the like. But luckily for me (and, you know, everyone else who saw it), The Favourite is less an episode of Masterpiece Theatre than it is a satire about power and influence that includes everything from beautiful classical music to duck races to scatological humor even South Park would think is a bit much. The Favourite definitely won me over, in no small part due to great performances by its three female leads. I like Rachel Weisz’s cunning attitude and confidence until events leave her emotionally and physically afflicted. I like Olivia Coleman’s absolute insanity as a manic, mercurial, eccentric monarch slowly slipping away. (Don’t worry, you’ll get ‘em next time, Glenn Close!) My favorite performance might be that of Emma Stone, whose arc in the film motivates much of the action and is the most complete. If it can win me over despite my initial hesitation, it can do the same for you. I can say that I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before.