Yorgos Lanthimos makes films that only he could make, partly due to the strange rules that he impresses on the worlds that he creates. Whether those worlds are the restricted compound of Dogtooth or the dystopian anti-romance police state of The Lobster, their inherent absurdity doesn’t break the films because the characters within strenuously abide by the rules. Throughout history, few environments had as restricting, nonsensical, and arbitrary rules as a European royal court, making one a perfect fit for Lanthimos. In The Favourite, the Greek director, born in the birthplace of democracy, goes to the eighteenth century English monarchy for an outrageous chamber drama to end all chamber dramas. How can a future wannabe Best Costume Oscar winner dare to pretend that royals and their courtesans had dignity and gravitas when Lanthimos frames them as coddled by legions of servants as they steer the ship of state based on which minister or hanger-on is making the best jokes?
Ethan Hawke has been quietly tearing up screens as a master of the one-for-them, one-for-me method of career building. I say quietly because his ones-for-them are disposable trash too insubstantial to generate the kind of derision someone like Nicolas Cage gets while his ones-for-me are tiny craft projects that no one sees but critics and cinephiles. Within this framework, the star of Born to Be Blue and Regression, of The Magnificent Seven and First Reformed, is operating at the highest level of his career, playing parts in both the best and worst movies of any given year. Hawke’s 2018 was especially superlative between his titanic role in First Reformed and his directing of Blaze, a biopic of a little-known outlaw country singer. Hawke reinvents a much-derided subgenre with his handling of Foley’s life, one that lacks the major milestones that operate as millstones around adaptations of more famous musicians’ lives. That Blaze can communicate who its subject was while also resisting genre tropes, finding universality in the life of a gifted man, and be a stunningly beautiful piece of art is a rarity and one more piece of evidence in the continued, idiosyncratic brilliance of the film’s director.
The Mercury Seven got their epic in The Right Stuff and so did the crew of Apollo 13, and now Neil Armstrong gets his cinematic apotheosis in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Kubrickian masterwork from a director who’s said all he has to say about jazz. Finding fertile new ground in the space race, Chazelle instills his historic representations with the flintiness of his Whiplash characters, portraying Armstrong as a difficult man who, in his difficulty, may have been the only person capable of emerging from the trying 19606’s intact. Utilizing you-are-there filmmaking and the best of Ryan Gosling’s oft-internal performances, First Man signifies Chazelle’s emergence as a singular auteur in total control of his art.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.