The Best Of The Rest Of Film: 2018

chris-hemsworth-jeff-bridges-bad-times-el-royale.jpgAnother Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone, driving a nail into the coffin of 2018, cinematically speaking. As usual, it was a night of triumphs and travesties. (More of the latter than the former, probably, but let’s not dwell.)

Green Book is our Best Picture for the year, though it was not even crafted well enough to secure a Best Director nod for Peter Farrelly. Instead, Alfonso Cuaron won for Roma, an artfully made black-and-white foreign language film. Both Best Screenplay categories tackle racial issues (BlacKkKlansman and Green Book). Both Supporting Actors are African-American (Mahershala Ali and Regina King), while both Lead Actors are playing gay or bisexual characters (Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne and Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury), as is Best Supporting Actor winner Ali. Black Panther received three below-the-line nominations, two going to African-American women making history in their categories.

So, can we feel good about the Oscars, and the cinematic year of 2018 in general? It’s difficult, with Green Book striking a sour, disharmonious note that punctuates a fraught year for the Academy. Green Book isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a poor representation of the past year in movies, which saw numerous black filmmakers tackling race-related subject matter more honestly and authentically than Peter Farrelly’s film could hope to. But the outrage around its win, and the way Green Book reinforces tired attitudes toward race that we thought had been left in the past, is very 2018. The Academy’s selection reflects America’s recent choices, even though it doesn’t seem to reflect the majority. In that way, this Best Picture winner actually is the perfect representation of where America is right now, culturally speaking — and that just happens to be embarrassing. Sorry, future historians! Some of us were trying.

And since Green Book doesn’t speak particularly well to the level of quality in movies in 2018, I’ve assembled a list of the Top 25 films that really, really do. I saw 106 films from last year, and these are the best — or my favorite, or however you want to classify it. They’re the films I expect to look back on as most representative of 2018 in cinema, and the year in general.

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Not-Oscars 2018

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The Academy is always a little bit wrong, which is why I write this post every year. Inevitably, there are writers, directors, actors, composers, and others who don’t get their just desserts from the Academy when nominees are announced — and those whose work is too niche, or too gene, to ever have a chance at Oscar gold in the first place.

But this year, the Oscars are really wrong.

Films like Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book have fared much better this awards season than they really should, and they’re likely to take home and Oscar or two. (God forbid — maybe even Best Picture.) But the Academy has made some inexplicably bad decisions behind the scenes, too — the stillborn Best Popular Film category, the announcement of Kevin Hart as this year’s host, the decision to cut all but two Original Song nominees, the decision to not air four of the categories live. All of these have been undone thanks to widespread backlash from the fans who actually watch and care about the Oscars, who are justifiably angry about ABC and the Academy changing the telecast to cater to those who do not. You would think they’d have gotten the message the first time: Don’t Fuck With Our Oscars. But they’ve had to learn again, and again, and again.

On the plus side, more categories than not are wide open, with multiple plausible winners. Some categories have frontrunners, and others — including the big prize, Best Picture — are anybody’s guess. It’s the most suspenseful, unpredictable Oscar race in recent memory. Anything could happen! (Except for my favorites winning Oscars — because most weren’t even nominated.)
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The Tens: Best Of Film 2018

oliver-masucci-never-look-awayThings have changed.

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Hotel (Half) California: ‘Bad Times At The El Royale’

jon-hamm-bad-times-at-the-el-royaleBad Times At The El Royale is a movie that “goes for it.”

That’s not a surprise, given that it comes from the co-writer/director of The Cabin In The Woods, 2012’s balls-to-the-wall meta horror extravaganza. (For those who haven’t seen it, we’re talking all of the balls, and every wall.) Bad Times At The El Royale has similar ambitions, this time deconstructing a decade rather than the horror genre.

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Thinning The Pack: ‘We The Animals’

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Based on the slim, lyrical novella by Justin Torres, We The Animals tells the story of a lower-middle-class family living in upstate New York. Jonah, Manny, and Joel are three hard-to-tame brothers who feed off each other’s energy to such an extent that it’s hard to tell them apart. What one does, they all do. What one wants, they all want.

Their parents, played by Raúl Castillo, and Sheila Vand, have equal verve and passion for life, which is why their relationship is so tumultuous. They canoodle, they fight, they separate, they get back together. Sometimes their self-interest gets in the way of raising the boys, leaving the “animals” to fend for themselves. The boys’ father laments that this family will never transcend its paycheck-to-paycheck roots, and that’s probably true of everyone except Jonah, who has hidden talents and secret desires we sense will take him out of this contained world someday.

As the film begins, 10-year-old Jonah is a “we.” The brothers are barely distinguishable from each other, and travel always as a pack. But as they get older, Jonah starts to stand out in subtle ways. He’s more sensitive, and maintains a closer relationship with his mother. He draws, a fact which he feels the need to hide from his family. His father wistfully distinguishes him from his brothers by calling him the “pretty one.” And he’s attracted to a neighbor boy, a few years older — old enough to introduce him to beer and porn. The differences between Jonah and his brothers grow more pronounced as they inch closer to puberty. Ultimately, We The Animals turns out to be a tragic title. Our protagonist shifts from being a member of a family to party of one; from “we” to “I.” It’s a transition every child goes through, in part, but Jonah stands to face a harsher reckoning than his brothers. There is safety in numbers, and Jonah is the odd man out.

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Co-written and directed by Jeremiah Zagar, We The Animals captures the elegiac, ethereal spirit of its source material while taking a direction of its own. Though the movie roots us in Jonah’s point of view, we see his mother, father, and brothers more objectively in film than in prose, widening this story’s scope. His father could be seen as a brute in a certain light. But Castillo (of HBO’s Looking, in a strong supporting performance) manages to convey the character’s inner conflict and regret, so we feel for him even when he makes some pretty egregious parenting mistakes. The same goes for Sheila Vand as the temperamental, occasionally toxic mother who begs Jonah to stay a little boy forever, even as her self-absorption forces him to grow up much too fast.

We The Animals packs a lot of thematic weight into a short running time and a slight story. It’s about lacking prospects for the American working class, especially true for ethnic minorities — and how the American dream beckons nevertheless. It’s about fraternity and masculinity, feral and fragile and toxic all at once. It’s a coming of age story, broaching the topic of preadolescent sexuality as rarely explored on the screen. It portrays art as both a damning differentiator and a beacon of hope.

Zagar’s film may remind us of other recent films that burrowed into childhood  — the magically realist Beasts Of The Southern Wild, the rude and rambunctious Florida Project, the nostalgic impressionism of Boyhood, and Moonlight, which also depicted a kid grappling with his queerness in a tough environment. But We The Animals is also its own beast, its protagonist more sure of himself. With documentary-like observation, it captures the fleeting details of a boy’s everyday life, then also heightens them as filtered through Jonah’s artist’s imagination. As a boy, perhaps Jonah still has a lot to learn and a long way to grow. But as a storyteller, We The Animals suggests, he is who he is all along, and not even this modest, turbulent upbringing will silence the creator within.

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Jonah hides a journal full of sketches that abstractly tell his story, knowing his family wouldn’t understand his urge to express himself. Through his imagination, Jonah becomes an explorer. There, he is much bolder than his brothers, much more adventurous than he ever could be as part of “the pack.”

Jonah likes boys, and Jonah is a sensitive and thoughtful artist. Maybe those two things have something to do with each other, maybe not — but both are intrinsic to his identity. They go deeper, even, than his relationship with his family, and though this is not really a “coming out” film, we do sense a looming journey on Jonah’s horizon, one he’ll need to embark upon without much support from his parents and brothers. Life hasn’t prepared him well for this quest — but he has, perhaps, adequately prepared himself.

Not everyone who feels at odds with their family is gay, of course, but queer viewers are likely to find something in We The Animals that speaks specifically to them — about learning, and also always knowing, that you are different from what you’re assumed and expected to be. As specific as that is, Jonah’s sexual orientation isn’t the sole factor that sets him apart from his parents and his siblings. He’s thoughtful. He’s creative. He’s perceptive. He’s smart. Even if he weren’t gay, these factors would likely set him on a path that strays far from his family.

Most people live within the parameters life sets for them, and are content with that. They may struggle, but they don’t take the kind of risks that truly change our circumstances. They don’t know how to. Essentially, they can’t. And then there are those like Jonah, who can only step outside the boundaries they were born in, because they never did belong.

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Radical Reverence: ‘First Reformed’

ethan-hawke-pastor-toller-first-reformedA Protestant pastor in upstate New York counsels troubled youths while preparing for his church’s 250th anniversary celebration. That’s not the first narrative that comes to mind for a spiritual sequel to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 antihero landmark Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader. But First Reformed, both written and directed by Schrader, comes about as close as any movie ever has to resurrecting Taxi Driver’s miserable, mesmerizing spirit.

And yes, most of it takes place in a church.

Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle was a working class misanthrope who found meaning in a misguided mission to assassinate a presidential candidate. Bickle was, perhaps, cinema’s first real reckoning with toxic masculinity, before anyone knew what that was. He loathed and loved the dirty, degenerate New York City of the 1970s, a hellhole teeming with hookers and criminals. Bickle never seemed to realize he fit right in. The city was a scapegoat for his inner demons, and the perfect setting for him to let them loose.amanda-seyfried-ethan-hawke-first-reformed

First Reformed updates and globalizes Bickle’s turmoil for 2018. It’s no longer just the mean streets of Manhattan that are corrupt and troubling, but the entire world. This is a different sort of degeneration, well-hidden and deeply embedded all over the world. In 2018, corporations call the shots even in the most unassuming of places, like the First Reformed church. It’s a quaint Dutch colonial house of worship with a modest following, 250 years old, run by the solemn and soft-spoken Revered Toller (Ethan Hawke). First Reformed only survives thanks to its association with Abundant Life, a modern megachurch, which in turn owes its survival to donations from BALQ, a fossil fuel firm. In First Reformed, even God answers to a higher power: capitalism.

Early on, a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) begs Reverend Toller to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental activist who has run afoul of the law. He’s reluctant to bring a child into this world, fearing that pollution and climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable for her generation. Toller and Michael could hardly be further apart in ideology, but both lay out their ideas persuasively. Michael shares tragedies of other activists whose resistance was futile, citing scientific consensus on the planet’s dire predicament. Reverend Toller, on the other hand, says that man has always been plagued by such doubts, but it’s both hope and that despair that make us human.

Michael takes little solace in the Reverend’s spiritual counsel, but Michael’s words have a lasting impact on Toller. Toller begins scrutinizing the pious world around him, seeing connections and hidden motivations he didn’t notice before. He is warned “not to get political” in his sermons, since corporate interests now take precedence over God’s word. Toller’s own spiritual counselor, Pastor Jeffers, shows skill as a manager but very little reverence. He may as well be the CEO of Walmart for all his religiosity. Michael and Mary become the only people he can truly connect to anymore.first-reformed-cedric-kyles.entertainer

Like Travis Bickle, Toller narrates his thoughts via journal, though in Toller’s case it serves as more of a counterpoint to what he’s actually experiencing — not just a crisis of faith, but a crisis of everything. Slowly but surely, he unravels as the buttoned-up Christian we were introduced to. He tries radicalism on for size. Like Bickle, Toller’s motives are muddled. We’re not sure what he hopes to accomplish, if anything; did Bickle have a real objective for shooting Palantine? For both men, extreme acts are an expression of inner turmoil, using ideology as excuse. Even the greatest atrocities are committed by people who believe they’re on the right side of history. Taxi Driver takes us disturbingly deep into Bickle’s damaged psyche, and though we never really like him, we know he still believes he’s the good guy all the while. In the end, he takes on the evils of prostitution, saving young Iris (Jodie Foster) and being celebrated as a vigilante. Reverend Toller is also motivated by what he believes is morally right, though the lines between good and evil in First Reformed are much murkier than they were in 1976’s seedy New York City.  These comparisons to Taxi Driver are useful at a thematic level, though these similarities fly under the radar aesthetically. With its squarish aspect ratio and restrained cinematography, Schrader’s direction has little in common with Scorsese’s stylings. This is not, thankfully, just “Taxi Driver Goes To Church.”

First Reformed is difficult to digest. It questions the form and function of religion in the 21st century, highlighting ways that some modern Christians have strayed from Jesus Christ’s core teachings. At the same time, it explores Christianity’s morbid iconography and bloodstained past. (“Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” is a lyric we teach to children?) In this way, First Reformed is the most “Christian” movie you’ll see this year, stirring up our thirst for holy vengeance even as we recoil from the thought.first-reformed-ethan-hawke

First Reformed belongs on a mantle with Darren Aronofsky’s mother! as cinema’s brashest, bleakest confrontation with climate change yet. It’s a movie every churchgoing Christian should see, a movie almost no churchgoing Christian will. It is both intimate and apocalyptic. It wrestles with the futility of even the most extreme acts against globally entrenched powers. It’s a bleak confrontation with the state of man, Earth, and God in 2018, and the hypnotic despair many feel when looking toward the future. It’s a counterpoint to anti-Muslim xenophobia, suggesting that even the least likely candidate can be radicalized under the right set of circumstances. And it shows us that radicalization is, perhaps, a quieter and more personal process than we think.

The film leaves us with plenty of questions, especially in a final scene that flips the script on the tone of the movie that’s come before. That, too, may be a nod to Taxi Driver. Is Schrader attempting to be glib, or perverse, or life-affirming? Or all three at once? Yes, it’s one of “those” endings, the kind that ruins the movie for some viewers. Be warned.

I’m of two minds on the film’s final moments myself, but First Reformed is too gnarled and unnerving to dismiss. It’s one of the densest, darkest films in recent memory — not because of its characters do, but because of what they think. Schrader triggers numerous modern anxieties — my stomach was in knots throughout. With only brief violence, no clear villains, and zero jump scares, First Reformed has a horror movie’s aftertaste. It depicts a world that is randomly, unfathomably bleak, and constantly reminds us that we already live there.

Amen.

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