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.
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.
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.
The title of Matthew Nelson’s Who We Are Now refers to the irrevocable return to one’s earlier self after a life-changing event. The new person is still walking around in the old person’s body, but they can’t get their brain into the same place no matter how much they might want to or how much the people around them want to get back to normal. Reconciling that gap is shown to require a level of vulnerability that most people are incapable of, especially when desperation opens up the possibilities of easy exploitation. Nelson’s actors’ showcase is the ideal form of agitprop, one that resists speechifying and naked political statements for the lived experiences of those on the margins.
If a theme had to be forced onto the films that just happen to have been released in 2018, despair comes to mind. It’s been present in works ranging from arthouse indies like Eighth Grade and You Were Never Really Here to the big-budget spectacles of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. Nowhere is despair more prevalent than in Paul Schrader’s haunting First Reformed, where all forms and all scales of dread are encapsulated by another of Schrader’s ‘god’s lonely men.’ Calling to mind the spare, religious-inflected introspection of mid-century masters like Robert Bresson, First Reformed is a bleak rebuke of hope and a dense treatise in search of it.
Chloe Zhao tells a traditional story untraditionally in The Rider. Her modern western and critical breakout about a rodeo rider adjusting to a life away from his calling could have easily cast some up-and-coming young males, maybe getting a ringer like Sam Elliot to play a supporting role and lend her film instant credibility. Instead, Zhao found the subject of her story on the South Dakota badlands and cast him in a loosely biographical film about his own life. Her cast plays themselves, a non-professional trope that doubles as a family. This blending of narrative and documentary achieves a Herzogian ecstatic truth where the details get lost amidst the broader emotional accuracy of what Zhao’s protagonist is experiencing. However, The Rider is most interesting in its background and its production; the film itself fades not unlike the many Dakota sunsets captured that grace the screen.
Brett Haley makes a pitch for himself as the American John Carney with his winning Hearts Beat Loud. Like Carney’s Once or Sing Street, characters use music to express thoughts they can’t speak, leaving them no choice but to sing them instead. These kinds of emotional dramas are continuously at risk of corniness or treacle, but like Carney, Haley avoids any eye-rolling by squeezing every drop of charm and charisma out of his characters, making earnest outbursts of raw feeling as potent for the viewer as they are for the character.
Great Gerwig recently gave movie viewers one of the best coming-of-age stories about a high school girl, or any teenager, in Lady Bird, and one year later, the cinematic world gets a middle-school complement with Bo Burnham’s stellar debut, Eighth Grade. Where Gerwig plumbed the depths of her own life with a semi-autobiographical story, Burnham turns his film into a sociological case study, investigating how young teens live now while also remembering to make his characters heart-wrenchingly real. Part bildungsroman, part satire, and part horror of the uncomfortable, Eighth Grade is required viewing, a painfully nostalgic trip to a universally awkward time and what feels like a deeply researched and observed voyage into this specific moment in cultural history.
The writing/directing combo of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman have made a film about teenagers and another about unmoored and bitter adulthood. With Tully, they continue their Linklater-esque journey down the path of major life events, usually starring an aggressively un-self-conscious Charlize Theron. In five years, maybe they’ll reunite again for a mid-life crisis exploration, but now, they’re concerned with motherhood and the porousness of different stages in a person’s life. Reitman and Cody both have been in the woods in recent years, with he languishing in overwrought romantic dramas and Crash-esque ensemble pieces as she takes lower-profile TV projects and has her own lackluster directorial debut. By reuniting with each other and with Theron, they’re able to recapture their earlier magic while also demonstrating more maturity, moving past the home-skillets of Juno and into something more grounded with the feel of lived-in experience and truth.
When confronted by her daughter on the inherent differences between their upper-lower-middle class family and the wealthy denizens of the local country club, Marge Simpson famously replied, “Yes, they’re better.” Depuffing that particular American idea, that wealth bequeathes goodness, among other things, is a reliable satirical strategy, and it’s one on display in the terrific Thoroughbreds. The rich in Cory Finley’s striking debut are only better in their own esteem, and their resources allows them to fool a broader swath of the population. Within their sturdy mansions are only flimsy approximations of human beings, faking what they are incapable of understanding and using their wealth to cover for whatever’s left.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.