If the Great Man theory of history had to be applied to the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs, some nameless, intrepid human had to be the first one to extend their hand to some nameless, curious, probably low-testosterone wolf. Such a pivotal, nonexistent moment gets adapted into Albert Hughes’ Alpha, a deft and effective picture of survival left to languish in the dregs of summer. Hughes brings a mythic sweep to a film that many directors hackier than him would have contentedly left as a marginally grittier Incredible Journey or an equally corny 10,000 BC. From its opening sequence to its rousing ending, Alpha emerges as one of 2018’s biggest surprises.
For the latest in micro-budget workarounds, the world turns to Searching, a kidnap thriller with the gimmick that all of its events take place through a webcam or on a screen. For his debut feature, director Aneesh Chaganty gives himself a high degree of difficulty, ensuring that his film will not exactly be the most cinematic to grace theater screens. However, thanks to the frayed-nerve desperation of star John Cho and a propulsive script, Searching transcends its technologically-imposed limitations to tell a classic story of a father and daughter drifting apart long before the dramatic events of the film. The germ of Chaganty’s film would work in a pre-smartphone era, though the gimmick would have to be reconsidered.
Terrence Malick’s mythic, ethereal films always find the intimate and the internal amongst the swirl of larger events, but in To the Wonder, there is no larger event beyond an unconvincing romance. Malick’s style lives on the razor’s edge between profundity and parody, and it’s often the grander stakes of colonial Virginia or the Pacific WWII theater that keeps his characters and their breathy inner monologues from becoming tiresome. Without those stakes or any epic sweep to speak of, To the Wonder’s in trouble.
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
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.
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Best Films of 2018
Random projects from the MMC Universe.