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.
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki, having previously tackled bite-sized topics like the military-industrial complex and the war on drugs, widens his scope to include decades of modern American history as mapped onto the life of one of the country’s most quintessential sons, Elvis Presley. The King flits between vignettes from Elvis’ life and commentators reflecting on broad social trends of the last 40 years, mostly from the backseat of Elvis’ Rolls Royce as it travels between the major locations of his life. The OJ: Made in America miniseries needed eight hours to produce a macro and micro picture of 1990’s Los Angeles, and Jarecki has made a similar, nationwide reckoning into an impossibility at 107 minutes.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe released entries in 2018 with the highest and lowest stakes over the course of their twenty films. Avengers: Infinity War placed half of all life in the universe at risk, while Ant-Man and the Wasp put some trade secrets on the line between parties that don’t seem particularly adversarial. That the former came out two months earlier than the latter was no favor, and the Ant-Man sequel had to alter its timeline so that it takes place before the cataclysmic events of Infinity War. Those events, while surely transient and at the mercy of comic-book backtracking, make the jaunty feel of many MCU films, including anything involving Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, seem like the end of a tone that’s differentiated itself from darker superhero outings and endeared this lengthy franchise to its fans. Ant-Man and the Wasp may be something of a last hurrah for the MCU, a place where snark and repartee now no longer feel acceptable.
Judging by the softening tones of his films over fifteen years, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson is losing his edge as he ages. Together contains an ecstatic ending but it’s achieved by enduring a couple hours of poisoned leftism, and his follow-up, Lilya-4-Ever, is a harrowing slice of misery porn borne out of the true story of a sex-trafficked teenager. We Are the Best! is far from that level of darkness, or any darkness at all, as exemplified by the title’s exclamation point. All the aforementioned films feature teenagers, and while Together and Lilya both portray a lost innocence and parents disappointing their children down, We Are the Best finds room for that kind of standard issue coming-of-age realization plus the un-self-conscious joy and vulnerability that two teen friends can have with each other. There is pure, infectious optimism to be had here, like the earned cathartic relief of Together’s ending was spread out over 102 minutes. Moodysson has made his bleak films, and We Are the Best is the polar opposite.
Of all the sequels in all the world, it’s only a scarce few that top their respective originals. Even the best sequels, like Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, have plenty of honest detractors who prefer what came before. There’s always that feeling of discovery that is associated with a franchise’s first entry, as well as the dangling suspicion that the sequel is more of a commercial enterprise than a creative one, especially in recent cinematic history when a list of any given year’s top grossing films is dominated by remakes and next chapters in ongoing stories. Paddington 2 avoids that stink by replicating the warmth and charm of the original and incorporating indelible new characters. It also has the gift of timeliness, a pitch for friendliness and good faith towards one’s neighbors when the world seems to be taking the opposite stance. Paul King’s film qualifies as one of 2018’s biggest surprises, a joy delivery system that takes what works from the original Paddington and crushes it into a diamond of irresistible delight.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.