The ‘useless men’ subgenre, best exemplified recently by Elle or Widows, gets more company with Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, a film whose punny title is perfect for its setting. Set in a ‘breastaurant’ that’s even more grimy and pathetic than the average Hooters, Support the Girls works as a line that the patrons of the central establishment would chuckle at and as a mantra for its harried but dedicated manager, beset on all sides by the tyrannies of the aforementioned useless men she comes into contact with. Bujalski, best known as an early adopter of mumblecore indie cinema, instills far more life into his latest film than one would expect from a mumblecore devotee, and while that genre has its moments, the success of Support the Girls suggests that he might be better off making films about energetic women instead of introspective men.
As the television landscape gets more segmented and diffuse, how can any one person manage to keep up? The answer is that they can't, as even the dwindling number of professional critics lament not being able to spend time on a series that's slow to get going. It's not that great shows don't exist, but it's both hard to find them or to go out on a limb with something new when all of King of the Hill just got added to Hulu, for example. Nevertheless, the best television of 2018 represents the increased diversity and cinematic daring that so many avenues for storytelling provides. Certain shows are always going to get overlooked (I continue to fall behind on Better Call Saul and anything on Showtime or Starz is a black hole, to say nothing of oddball streaming shows like Maniac or Homecoming), but these twenty series keep the Golden Age of Television moving into the future.
More Best of 2018 at:
Best Film Scenes
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.
More Best of 2018:
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
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.
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.
Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney has the misfortune of arriving in theaters years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both documentaries track the rise and fall of generational musical talents, the former about Whitney Houston and the latter about Amy Winehouse. Their lives were elevated by what made them unique entertainers and artists and brought low by drug use, manipulative fathers, and bad relationships. Kapadia avoided nonfiction biopic clutter and sameness by piecing together much of his film from paparazzi footage of Winehouse, a formal statement that matched the path that his subject’s life was taking. Macdonald doesn’t use that kind of formal invention, and instead relies on the power of his talking heads and of Houston’s own dominating charisma. Whitney proves to be a capable documentary thanks to those aforementioned strengths, as well as some aggressive editing from Sam Rice-Edwards. Houston is revealed to be the kind of multi-faceted personality that no one could make a bad documentary about.
The best kind of horror movies are about some kind of unspeakable impulse or thought embodied by demons or monsters. So much of David Cronenberg’s work is about a body revolting against its owner. The slasher movies of the 80’s enact some form of retributive morality on sexual freedom. Familial bonds aren’t spared from interrogation, whether in a classic like The Shining or the more contemporary Babadook. Ari Aster’s disconcerting debut Hereditary is in this last vein, stuffed with corrupted relationships to the point of bursting. It gives explicit voice to taboo feelings, especially about motherhood, as it moves between subgenres of horror in its different acts. Some of these transitions are more successful than others, but the total package is masterful in its evocation of earlier horror staples while also making its own contribution to the genre.
Morgan Neville isn’t breaking new cinematic ground with Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about the life of children’s television host Fred Rogers. He’s not even as formally inventive as he is with his Oscar winner, 20 Feet From Stardom, in which he used memorable camera tricks to show how one backup singer can now do the work of several. This film is as straightforward and uncomplicated as its host, and it loses little power by being so. Sometimes, the choice of a documentarian’s subject is enough to make a film a dead ringer, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor has made that choice.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.