Spike Lee teaches film at NYU when he’s not making movies, and so many of the prolific director’s films can feel like he’s taking the audience to school. At his most natural, like in a biopic of known lecture-giver Malcolm X, Lee merges the personal and the political with minimal effort, but he’s not always so successful. BlacKkKlansman finds Lee at his most didactic, a deadly trait when the film also has the problem of being muddled in its characterization and its message. However, Lee is still Lee, capable of exuding joyous cool even as he’s pointing fingers in audience’s faces. The nuggets of greatness that the film contains are worth spending several minutes in Race and Culture 101.
Anyone putting together a list of the best scenes has to figure out their criteria. If it's most spectacular or highest degree of difficulty or technical mastery, then any year that contains a Mission: Impossible movie has a go-to entry. For as much as we go to the movies to be wowed, we also go to be shaken and emotionally transported, and that's as likely to happen with characters sitting around a dinner table as it is during a dive out of a plane. These scenes rocked me on first viewing and have radiated in my brain in the weeks and months after, with some serving as the clarification of a thought I've been unable to fully flesh out and others as potent land mines of emotion that I can tread around if I want to make myself cry. In their silence or in their intensity, these are the packets of perfection that film fans are always on the hunt for.
These are ordered from least to most spoilery, with links where available.
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The complicated story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion doesn’t seem to lend itself to a two hour film. It contains such thorny moralistic questions that shortchanging them risks doing a disservice to the truth of the event. Violent uprisings against slavery were surely warranted and just, but what kind of retaliation is justified, both by the rebels and the slaveowners when they inevitably reestablish power? Nate Parker’s film, the provocatively titled Birth of a Nation, is solely interested in the most obvious and least compelling facet i.e. the threshold of indignity and injustice before a pushback occurs. By making this choice, The Birth of a Nation becomes a rehash of other, better films about slavery and ignores the cloudier, demythologizing parts of this story that would’ve made Parker’s film into something more than an antebellum Braveheart.
Debra Granik, who along with Kelly Reichardt functions as an empathetic chronicler of white rustics, finally returns to feature filmmaking with Leave No Trace. In the eight years between her latest and the long shadow of Winter’s Bone, Granik’s only output, thanks to failed pilots and films stuck in development, was 2014’s Stray Dog, a compelling documentary about a man not dissimilar from a character in Leave No Trace. Fellow female auteur Lynne Ramsay also returned to screens in 2018 with her latest masterpiece, You Were Never Really Here, and the rapturous response to it and Granik’s Leave No Trace will hopefully mean that we won’t be in the middle of the next decade when their next films are seen. As a director telling perceptive and affectionate stories about the nation’s underclass, there has to be a place for Granik on the annual release schedule, especially when she’s capable of heartfelt output like this.
In a cinematic year dominated by despair, some of the best performances track how such a strong emotion can begin and where it can take a person. Youthful characters like Elsie Fisher's Kayla Day, Na-Len Smith's Ray, or Jeon Jong-seo's Shin Hae-mi might see their optimism and wanderlust curdle into the nihilistic depression of Ethan Hawke's Ernst Toller and Joaquin Phoenix's Joe, both of whom have long since given up the expectation that things will get better. These, and five others, demonstrate that even when actors are mired in tragedy, great work like theirs can still inspire joy.
More Best of 2018 countdowns:
Best Films of 2018
Joseph Kosinski sheds the high-flying science fiction of his earlier career to get down in the dirt for the gritty saga of Only the Brave. The director of Tron Legacy and Oblivion is on far firmer ground here, able to omit fantastical world-building in exchange for a surprising grasp of character and chemistry. In adapting the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew of Southwestern wildfire fighters, Kosinski and writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer make an appealing and affecting tribute to benevolent masculinity, the kind that betters instead of levels and values self-knowledge instead of repression.
Tom Cruise’s efforts to distract from his high placement in Scientology while simultaneously advertising for its apparent rejuvenating powers continue with the sixth entry in the Mission Impossible franchise. A series that has continually topped itself with each entry, Mission Impossible: Fallout is the first to experience diminishing returns. Make no mistake; Christopher McQuarrie and his team are producing peak action filmmaking. Fallout contains what could be the best fight scenes, the best skydiving scenes, and the best land/air chases possible, but the bar has been raised so high by skyscraper climbs and underwater safe cracking that the best is no longer good enough. The film’s mastery of technique is appreciated, but it’s ingenuity that Mission: Impossible thrives on, and there’s just not enough of it here.
Oakland found itself as a key location in three significant 2018 releases. Far away from the Wakanda-adjacent Oakland of Black Panther and the tech-dystopia of Sorry to Bother You lies Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting, the only one to take place in a contemporary reality and, by extension, the best of the three. Written by and starring Oakland native Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, from neighboring Berkeley, the film feels like a sociological snapshot of a rapidly changing city torn between the people who’ve lived there for generations and the waves of new money crashing on its shores.
So many of the best films of 2018 radiated despair. Whether this applied to First Reformed Ernst Toller contemplating suicide bombings, the grief for the unworthy men of Widows, or Eighth Grade's Kayla Day's dread of a never-improving social standing, so many characters looked into the future and saw no reason of a return to contentment or normalcy. While some of them incorporated this feeling into their lives, others, like Paddington Brown and Fred Rogers, embodied a hopefulness based on small acts of kindness, that if enough of them could be stacked on top of each other, then things will improve. Still others, like Joe from You Were Never Really Here and Neil Armstrong from First Man, put their heads down, choked down their pain, and did their jobs. An excellent year for film produced an above-average quota of tortured protagonists, whether by their own demons or by outside forces. Joy is the most-searched for film-generated emotion, and though it was in short shrift in the cinematic year, plenty of joy can be taken from filmmakers unafraid to dig into the darkest human emotions and experiences with curiosity and honesty.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.